by Renata Smith, MPH

Technology is here to stay. A recent report found that in 2014, there were enough cell phones (7 billion) to cover 96% of the world’s population (some people have more than 1). This includes 90% of people in developing countries, where owning a cell phone is more common that having a landline or computer. Another report by the Pew Research Center found that around 75% of mobile phone owners use text messaging.

Diverse populations, including adolescents, people with low income, and those in developing countries, have readily adopted mobile technology and text messaging. As a result, more research has turned to the use of text messaging as a delivery mode for disease prevention or management interventions, especially for these traditionally harder to reach populations. Text messaging has been shown to be a successful tool in smoking cessation and diabetes management, and researchers in the field of obesity prevention have begun to use it with hopes of similar success.
Does Text Messaging for Weight Loss Work?

A 2014 meta-analysis reviewed the efficacy of weight management interventions that used text messaging as the primary tool. The study included 14 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in children and adults. Seven studies used text messaging to report self-monitoring data by participants (such as body weight), 4 studies used texting as a means of reinforcing targeted behaviors such as healthy eating or exercise, and 7 studies tailored feedback responses for individuals based on their self-reported data. The authors found modest success with these interventions.  Participants who received the texting interventions lost more weight than participants in programs that did not (2.56kg vs. 0.37kg, respectively).

Text messaging can be interactive, tailored, and widespread, enabling a wider reach of health practitioners, especially for vulnerable populations and to those without adequate healthcare. Studies to date, as summarized in the meta analysis, are promising but limited by a short duration of follow-up. 

Is text messaging the future for interventions to change behavior?

The primary barrier in weight loss is weight maintenance; many successful interventions have had limited long-term results.  Is mobile technology a long-term solution, or a temporary reprieve from the grip of chronic disease? That is the big question that still needs to be answered. As mobile technology and mobile health continue to saturate the world, we must have long term studies that give us an important verdict on this question.



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