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How mobile phones could save us from obesity

13 August 2015
Mobile phone technology could be a lifeline for young people at risk of obesity

A world-first intervention designed by Charles Perkins Centre researchers specifically for young people found mobile phones could improve health and halt weight gain. 

Girl holding a mobile phone: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91650159@N05/10076096656/

Image: Jae Lee, Flickr

Mobile phones could be the golden ticket to halting weight gain and improving health in young Australians, according to new research from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.

Researchers designed a world-first mobile phone intervention for young people at risk of obesity which used text messages, a mobile phone app, emails, diet resources and personalised coaching calls. Participants in the program lost weight, increased physical activity, ate more vegetables and drank fewer sugary drinks.

“Young adults are gaining more weight than any other group, with the average BMI of 18- to 24-year-olds now in the overweight range,” said lead researcher Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli from the University’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Science.

“Young people are our lowest consumers of fruit and vegetables and our highest consumers of sugary drinks. They are also more likely to eat takeaway food.

“We know that weight gained in young adulthood often persists throughout later life, vastly increasing the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Intervening early could therefore have an enormous impact on the global obesity crisis.

“Despite all of this, there are almost no prevention strategies specifically designed for young people,” Professor Allman-Farinelli said.

With the cost of health care in Australia set to hit $8 billion by 2032, mainly due to obesity, it’s critical that we find ways to prevent the condition before it becomes intractable, and brings with it devastating chronic diseases and associated conditions.
Professor Margaret Allman-Farinelli

The intervention, TXT2BFiT, is believed to be the first in the world to target young people using mobile technology and a program specifically designed for them, not for older adults. The research was published in JMIR mhealth and uhealth.

The 12-week program included daily motivational text messages, five personalised coaching calls, weekly emails and password-protected access to mobile phone apps to provide education and enable self-monitoring. A separate control group was provided with a two-page handout, a phone call to introduce the program, four text messages in 12 weeks and access to a website with basic information about the study.

At the end of the program, the intervention group was 2.2kg lighter than the control group, and consumed more vegetables, fewer sugary soft drinks, and fewer energy-dense takeaway meals. They also increased their total physical activity.

The 250 18- to 35-year-old overweight participants were chosen for their high risk of weight gain, and were randomised to the intervention or control groups.

“The results of the study show the effectiveness and importance of designing interventions specifically for young people, rather than relying on a one size fits all model,” Professor Allman-Farinelli said.

“With the cost of health care in Australia set to hit $8 billion by 2032, mainly due to obesity, it’s also critical that we find ways to prevent the condition before it becomes intractable, and brings with it devastating chronic diseases and associated conditions.”

Researchers are now analysing follow-up data to find out whether the results were maintained six months after the study, and are investigating how such programs could be implemented in the wider community.