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Losing weight is hard and keeping it off even harder. Researchers from the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science at Drexel University set out to investigate if tracking progress and sharing it with your health counsellors helps.

Three ways to track progress

The study’s 87 adult participants went through a 12-month weight loss program and they were instructed to do 3 self-monitoring activities every day:

1. Wear a Fitbit fitness tracker.

2. Weigh themselves on a wireless scale.

3. Log their food intake in a smartphone app.

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The first phase of the weight loss program lasted 3 months. All participants attended a weekly group session to learn behavioural skills that would help them build and maintain healthy lifestyle habits. After this time period the group sessions ended, and the study moved on to its second phase.

Weight maintenance is the hardest part

For the remaining 9 months, also known as the maintenance phase, each participant received just one weekly text message and one monthly phone call with their coach. This is when the participants were randomly divided into 2 groups.

1. One half worked with a coach who had access to their self-monitoring data. The coach addressed the data during the phone calls and text messages.

2. For the other half of the participants, the coaches could not see their data from the Fitbit, wireless scale or digital food record and only relied on what the participants told them during the calls.

“This is the period that is often hard for folks who want to lose weight. And weight that is initially lost tends to start to be regained,” said Meghan Butryn, PhD, lead author of the study and director of research in the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science.

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Coaches can help better when they see self-monitoring data

Coaches who had access to the participants’ self-monitoring data were able help them see how well they were doing and how close they were to their goals. For example, in a call a coach might say something like this: “You set a goal last month of 5 bouts of exercise per week, and I see that you only averaged 2 per week. Tell me more about what happened.”

“We were interested to see if weight loss maintenance would be better when coaches could see the data and provide feedback and a sense of accountability to participants, which might help sustain a high level of motivation to keep up healthy eating behaviours and physical activity,” said Butryn.

The researchers observed patterns suggesting that when coaches had access to data, it helped participants keep off their weight. In their concluding thoughts, researches posed an interesting question: “If your primary care doctor was able to see all of your Fitbit exercise data, would it motivate you to be more physically active?”