Computers and the Internet have become unlikely allies in weight loss – researchers are trying to find out how people on diets are using online resources, and what the results are.
One of the culprits quoted in America’s struggle with expanding waist lines is “too much screen time” – time spent online or playing computer games. But researchers are observing that the computer can be a helpful tool in weight loss.
When Amelia Schmerz was looking to lose 20 some pounds after pregnancy she liked the point system offered by weight watchers – but didn’t want to participate in group sessions:
Schmerz: Weight watchers had never been appealing to me from the idea that this is a place where women get together and they complain about their weight – number one. Number two, I just didn’t have to time to go to meetings.
Schmerz signed up for weight watchers online. She put together a diet plan, looked up point charges for specific foods, and tracked her progress. Every week, she was prompted to weigh herself and type in the new numbers:
Schmerz: And then the computer gives you a nice little message saying – congratulations, you lost one and a half pounds!
Computers and the internet have become unlikely allies for those working in obesity prevention. Dr. Sharon Herring of Temple University’s Center for Obesity research says – you have take your message where people will use it:
Herring: People are using computers all the time and they are keeping their calendars online and we’re always connected. So it provides people the ability to track their behaviors a little easier than writing down things with paper and pencil.
Herring is researching how people use online resources in weight loss, and what the results are. In one study, Herring found that people tracking their weight and activity online lost more weight than their counterparts using journals. Her colleague Dr. Melissa Napolitano says in addition to counting calories, online weight loss communities offer a support system:
Napolitano: So the computer can help you find a buddy, can help you connect with people who are also making similar type changes, so it doesn’t seem like such a struggle and it doesn’t seem like you are completely on your own.
And – there is the benefit of immediacy, something real life support groups can’t always provide:
Napolitano: When you are really struggling with something you don’t want to have to wait until your group meets Wednesay nights at 7 o’clock, you really want to get that immediate feedback.
Quick results are something many diets promise and people can now go online to see how they will look once they have reached their goal weight – without losing a single ounce.
My Virtual Model is a website that allows people to create 3-D models of themselves. One model shows what a person looks like now, the other is a virtual version of their future selves after weight loss.
Virtual Model president Louise Gay says people post pictures of their weight loss models around the house for inspiration:
Gaye: And if they would open they open the door of the fridge when they should not, it’s really a reminder and a motivational piece, a self-improvement tool I would say, to lose weight.
Obviously, the virtual models don’t account for such issues as bone structure, or excess skin after weight loss – it’s more about the fun of creating them. The fun factor of online programs might wear off, says Sharon Herring of Temple University – something that could also be true of computer games like Wii fit which have been credited with increased physical activity:
Herring: They do help kids become more active, and adults become more active, but the question is over time, are people going to continue to use these and are they going to have the same effects? So we really need to figure out how to keep people engaged over long periods of time.
Keeping the weight off is a major challenge for dieters – Amelia Schmerz took a break from her online diet right before the holidays:
Schmerz: I thought I would give myself a little bit of pass, and I’m seeing the results of not having stayed committed, so I do think that I actually do need to re-commit soon
Especially with swim suit season coming up.