Using Technology to Fight Obesity and Improve Your Health

Bobby Miller

Even though the United States devoured 46 gold medals during the 2012 Summer Olympics, our nation as a whole isn’t exactly famous for being physically fit. According to Dr. Christine A. Pellegrini and her colleagues, roughly 36 percent of American adults are obese. Her team identifies obesity as having a body mass index, or BMI, over 30.

Nvate Weight loss technology by Zambee, BodyMedia, Mandometer and Omron, obesity, fitness

Her team noted that obesity “heightens the risk of a number of diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obstructive sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis and several forms of cancer.” This also costs taxpayers dearly. In 2008, America spent $147 billion on medical care due to the obesity epidemic.

Unfortunately, staying fit is easier said than done. Dr. Jennifer N. Duncan found in one of her studies that various recommendations for obese patients, including lifestyle changes such as eating healthier and exercising more, have been in place for decades. However, “fewer than 25 percent of U.S. adults maintain diet or physical activity in accord with these recommendations,” as she explained. A 10 percent decrease in weight could significantly lower an obese person’s chance of contracting an illness or dying, but even this has proven to be a challenging goal.

As time marches on, new technology for healthy living has been developed. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile technology, many people can access versatile devices such as smartphones. According to Yahoo, “a recent Pew Internet study found that 78 percent of teens now have a cell phone, and almost half of them—47 percent—own smartphones with computing capability.” Some experts believe devices like smartphones might be the key to motivating people to live healthier.

Using Smartphones to Promote Smart Habits

It’s rather ironic that technology might hold the key to combating obesity. Dr. Susan Woolford, a member of the University of Michigan’s Pediatric Comprehensive Weight Management Center, told Yahoo, “Most often we think using technology is part of the problem.” After all, many teenagers would rather pretend to be an acrobatic Italian plumber or a cybernetically-enhanced super soldier in a video game rather than move around themselves. Yet Woolford hopes that new technology will help.

Woolford and her team developed a system that sends people automated text messages daily, recommending different healthy foods or engaging exercises based on their interests. As Yahoo noted, her team is very careful in how they word their messages. For instance, they used to say, “Instead of ice cream try frozen yogurt today,” but too many participants couldn’t get ice cream out of their minds after reading that. So now, the message is simply, “Try yogurt this morning.”

Nvate Weight loss technology by Zambee, BodyMedia, Mandometer and Omron, obesity, fitness

Other researchers have noted that, in addition to being specific and befitting the individual receiving it, a message should be “gain-framed” rather than “loss-framed.” As Deborah A. Kerr explained in one of her studies on healthy eating, it’s better to emphasize the good that can come from eating healthier and staying active rather than emphasizing the bad that can come from failing to do so. Rather than say, “You’ll never lose weight if you just sit in front of the TV all day,” a message should read, “Staying active for just 30 minutes can bring you so much closer to a healthier weight.”

Even if you’re not a member of Woolford’s study, you can still receive personalized messages to help live a healthier life. The iPhone app intelli-Diet tells you what to eat based on your favorite foods, for example.

Smartphones can help in other ways too. For instance, according to Prevention.co, simply tracking what you eat by taking a quick picture of your plate or your potato chip bag before chowing down can make a tremendous difference. This allows you to see everything you’re eating, making you less likely to underestimate just how much you’re eating.

According to The Huffington Post, many dieters fail to record the “little bites” they sneak in throughout the day. Kerr noted that this is especially problematic for adolescents, since they’re more prone to snacking than adults are. But when you only need to take a picture of what you’re eating, you’re less likely to gloss over anything.

This method has proven effective in studies. Yahoo explained that “a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics investigated the effectiveness of keeping a food log, and [it] found that people who kept one lost 2.8 kg, [or 6 pounds] more than people who tried to follow the diet without recording it.”

Finally, smartphones can help dieters keep in contact with their peers, coaches and health experts for support. As Duncan found, being able to talk with or text an expert at any time is valuable in our busy world where face-to-face meetings can be expensive and difficult to schedule.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone: Use Social Media

Since humans are naturally social, support from peers can be tremendously helpful when tackling something as difficult as changing one’s eating habits and exercise habits entirely. According to Sergio Guillén, “the enactment of any change that is expected to be permanent needs to start from the internal conviction of the person, and a high level of continuous support is required to assure compliance and motivation.”

And, of course, social media is an effective means of connecting with your friends. Marjorie Nolan, registered dietician of the American Dietetic Association, said research supports the idea that social media helps people lose weight.

Nvate Weight loss technology by Zambee, BodyMedia, Mandometer and Omron, obesity, fitness

eDiet.com’s Facebook page, where thousands of people can talk to one another about their weight loss goals.

Colleen Lange, a 41-year-old resident of New Jersey, told Prevention.com that posting on Facebook and Twitter with her friends helped her tremendously. “We post daily—sharing recipes, supporting one another, even talking a little smack for extra motivation,” she explained. People like her can celebrate when weight loss goals are met, console individuals who end up regaining some weight, and more. Turning weight loss into a healthy competition can also motivate people. Blogging about your changes in eating and exercise habits can help you stay motivated too. Plus, people may borrow some of your ideas to help themselves out.

Other Devices for Dieting and Staying Fit

You can also stay fit by wearing a pedometer. Although the basic step-counting device isn’t new, recent pedometers have many advanced features to help keep track of your daily movement. For instance, the Omron Pocket Pedometer comes with health management software, as stated on Amazon. This allows you to set specific activity goals and keep track of how well you’re meeting those goals each day. Also, the pedometer itself can be adjusted to your personal stride length for a more accurate step count, something valuable to people who aren’t of an average height. It can look at “aerobic steps,” those taken consistently for over 10 minutes or taken quickly. It also looks at your time active, the distance you’ve travelled and the calories and grams of fat you’ve burned.

Another device to keep track of your activity is the BodyMedia Link armband, as featured on NBC’s reality show, “The Biggest Loser.” It keeps track of calories burned and consumed while giving you personal feedback, as stated on Amazon. It can also be worn in your sleep to make sure you’re getting a healthy amount of rest every night. Also, there is a monthly, $7 subscription service required to utilize it fully.

Nvate Weight loss technology by Zambee, BodyMedia, Mandometer and Omron, obesity, fitness

Technology can do more than keep track of how active you are, however. One recent innovation is Mandometer, which the British Medical Journal believes can be amazingly useful. On the surface, this device made by Sweden’s Karolinska Institute may seem rather plain. According to The Huffington Post, it’s basically just a scale that measures how heavy your food is.

But this can be more helpful than you might think. To begin with, by putting your plate on a scale before eating it, you might realize you’re taking in more than you originally planned. Plus, if you start eating too fast, Mandometer will tell you to slow down. This is crucial since research has long shown that you’re likely to eat too much if you eat quickly because your stomach needs time to tell your brain that you’re full.

The Huffington Post summarizes the research performed with the Mandometer by noting that “after one year, the subjects that used Mandometer witnessed their BMI drop by an average of 2.1 points. This decrease is three times greater than that of the study’s control group. Moreover, the individuals’ weight loss was maintained when measured 18 months later.”

The Zamzee Kid

Being aware of how hard it can be to get children active without some sort of incentive, HopeLab has developed the Zamzee activity meter. The group has long been involved with using technology to improve people’s health, but this device is unique in that it is targeted mostly toward children. Unlike a typical pedometer, a Zamzee doesn’t just keep track of steps. You clip it on, and it measures the intensity of movement that the user engages in. This is significant in that it can account for short bursts of movement, something many pedometers cannot do.

There’s more to it than that, though. As HopeLab explained, a child can create an online account on the product’s website, where they can accrue reward points based on their amount of activity. To hook up their Zamzee to the website, all they have to do is pull out a part of the device and stick it in the computer’s USB port. They can exchange these points for gift cards, MP3 players and more. Plus, they can even use their points to donate to a charitable cause. The website also provides specific challenges to motivate children. For instance, maybe the child has to earn a certain number of points within a given time span. This provides a sense of accomplishment similar to that of completing a video game level.

Dan Botwinick of Zamzee’s marketing and program development said that research shows these incentives have concrete benefits for children’s health. “Our randomized, controlled study found that Zamzee increased physical activity levels in kids by 59 percent over a six-month period and reduced biological risk factors for heart disease and diabetes,” he explained.

Technology Can’t Do Your Job for You

While all this technology is useful for people trying to live healthy, we should be careful not to rely too much on various gadgets to get us active. As nutritionist Susan Kleiner explained, “It doesn’t matter what kind of fancy gadget you’ve got to tell you how to exercise. You still have to go out and exercise. In the end, the onus is on you.”

However, technology definitely has its place. As Zamzee’s website explains, “Handheld devices contribute to sedentary behavior, but they aren’t going to go away any time soon.” So why fight against technology when we can use it to our advantage? Ultimately, there are plenty of products out there to help you diet and exercise whether you’re trying to lose weight or simply maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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