Can your cell phone help you lose weight?

Most people have a cell phone so it seems only natural that there are cell phone applications for fitness and nutrition.  In the academic world, there’s been an increasing number of studies looking at using texting and/or reminders for improving healthy behaviours.  From quitting smoking to eating more fruits and veggies, cell phone technology has been shown to help some people change their habits.

Very recently, a research team in San Diego, CA, tested out a cell phone app for weight loss over 4 months.  They split 65 overweight people into 2 groups by flipping a coin: the cell-phone group and the control group.  The cell phone group received instant messages a couple times/day and could decide when they wanted to receive them.  A library of 3000 different text messages was developed so that over the 4 months, participants would never get the same message twice.  About half of the messages required a reply to a question, with the rest of the texts providing information on goal-setting, nutrition, exercise, and personal strategies for weight loss. This group also received monthly phone calls from a trained health counselor to check in.

The control group received a 2-page handout once a month during the 4 month study. That’s it.

What happened?

At the end of the 4 months, the cell phone group lost an average of 6.3 lbs. The average weight loss for the control group was only 2 lbs.  While the cell phone group did lose significantly more weight than the control group, their average weight loss was only 0.4 lb/week!!  It’s certainly better than nothing but it’s really not that great.

Take home message:

A cell phone app designed to help you lose weight may be able to give you reminders, information, and support but you still need to change your habits. You need to exercise. You need to eat right.  Your cell phone can’t do these things for you.

On a more positive note, one of the most frustrating things about being a personal trainer is that you only get to spend 3-4 hours tops with each client every week.  While you can kick their butt at the gym and provide them with nutritional guidance, what they do in the other 164 hours of their week is often the reason they are not achieving the results they want.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a personal trainer app for your clients?  Then they could have reminders and support throughout the day.

I can see it now: “Jane, McDonald’s is not your friend. Retreat. Retreat!” or “On your way for coffee Bill?  There are 420 calories in a triple triple – don’t do it! AVOID! AVOID!.”  “Today was a beauty of a day! Did you get outside to exercise?” to which they respond “Yes” and get the response “Sweet action! You are awesome!” or  if they respond “no” they get the response “WTF. You’re fired!”

On second thought…maybe people need to be their own “app” instead of relying completely on someone else to monitor their actions and keep them accountable.  Call me old fashioned but I think a little discipline goes a long way!


Patrick K, Raab F, Adams MA, Dillon L, Zabinski M, Rock CL, Griswold W, Norman GJ. A text message-based intervention for weight loss: Randomized controlled trial. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 78(10), 704-710.


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