It’s well known that most people who lose weight on an intentional weight-loss diet typically regain that weight, and often more, within a year. Follow-up studies, including those focused on participants in the show The Biggest Loser, have consistently shown that metabolic slowing and rebound weight-gain are very real problems. So how might patient health portals and digital health interventions offer a solution?

even without the face-to-face counseling or group support

Online Support for Successful Long-Term Weight Loss

A new study out of Finland suggests that a hybrid web-based intervention may be a game-changer for people looking to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. This study examined the effects of an online health behavior change support system (HBCSS), with or without other interventions. 

A total of 532 people aged 20-60 were involved in the study. Participants had a BMI of 27-35 at the start of the study, and they were assigned randomly to one of six groups for a total of 52 weeks:

  • CBT-based group counseling (eight sessions led by a nutritionist)

  • CBT-based group counseling plus HBCSS

  • Self-help guidance-based group counseling (two sessions led by a nurse)

  • Self-help guidance-based group counseling plus HBCSS

  • A control group that received no intervention

  • A control group plus HBCSS

The participants attended the study center at baseline, 12, and 24 months for anthropometric measurements, blood sample collection and to complete questionnaires.

At the end of the study, the researchers found that the greatest weight loss (4.1% of body weight) was seen in the CBT plus HBCSS group. What’s more, this group also had greater success in maintaining that weight loss over two years, with a third of participants in this group achieving a weight loss of 5% or more at 24 months. 

Even without the face-to-face counseling or group support, though, participants engaging in HBCSS also enjoyed significant weight loss, demonstrating the effectiveness of patient health portals and online interventions for weight management. And, as if that wasn’t inspiring enough, the researchers also noted that participants in the HBCSS intervention arms were three times more likely to lose more than 10% of their body weight: 8.6-11.3% of those engaged with HBCSS lost over 10% of their body weight, in fact.

What is HBCSS?

This latest study strongly suggests significant benefits for web-based HBCSS, but what does this actually consist of and how is it applied?

In the Finnish study, the 52-week web-based HBCSS was a stand alone information system based on theories of CBT and current scientific and practical knowledge of eating behavior, diet, physical activity and health information literacy.

In practice, each participant assigned to the HBCSS group received an email with a link to log into the HBCSS. From there, they could use the system to access information and set goals, as well as to complete weekly tasks such as recording body weight and physical activity. Participants also received weekly reminders to log into the system and were notified of new tasks.

Every week, the HBCSS provided participants with a suggested exercise and tip for lifestyle change, as well as an informational article to support weight loss. These articles covered topics such as motivation, recognition of and coping with dysfunctional thoughts and emotions related to eating behavior, weight monitoring, physical activity and self efficacy beliefs.

The ability for users to track their progress and submit regular entries about their feelings and experiences was a core component of the HBCSS and offers a clear example of where digital health technology can really shine.

Better Weight Management Through Digital Technology

Given that most people regain at least 50% of lost body weight after a year, finding effective strategies to support patients in achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is of paramount importance for improving overall health and wellbeing. 

The most effective weight loss strategy appears to be a multidisciplinary approach that recognizes the individual motivations and struggles of each patient. For instance, some people need greater help maintaining motivation for physical activity, while others struggle with sticking to a healthy diet. Others still simply lack confidence trying to lose weight without professional help. All of these factors are easily addressed through the use of digital health technologies that provide continual, tailored support long after most weight management programs end.

In general, if a person manages to maintain weight loss over a two-year period, they are more likely to continue to maintain that weight loss longer-term. Given the myriad benefits associated with having a healthy body weight, clinicians in every field of medicine stand gain by incorporating long-term weight management programs into their clinic’s holistic health care approach.

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