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Sharing Health Data May Help Maintain Weight Loss, Research Suggests

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Key Takeaways

  • Boosting accountability through data sharing can help with weight loss maintenance, a new study finds.
  • Greater focus on weight maintenance, rather than just weight loss, could help reduce the negative effects found with yo-yo weight cycling.
  • Other strategies that help with maintenance have been highlighted in previous studies, and include slower weight loss and greater self-compassion.

For many people, maintaining weight loss is much more challenging than losing the weight in the first place, but a recent study in Obesity?? suggests greater accountability through data sharing could help.

Researchers studied 87 participants in a year-long weight loss program, each of whom completed three self-monitoring activities daily:

  • Wearing a Fitbit fitness tracker
  • Weighing themselves on a wireless scale
  • Logging food intake in a smartphone app

During the first three months, all participants had a weekly group session to learn effective behavior skills related to weight loss. After that timeframe, each participant had only one weekly text message and one monthly phone call with a health coach, but half the group also shared their data with that professional, while the other half did not.

The health sharing group had much more success when it came to maintaining weight loss, and researchers believe it may be related to getting specific advice and encouragement related to their progress.

For example, a coach might comment on how much exercise a participant did versus the activity goal the participant set initially. This level of feedback and accountability was helpful for participants, researchers concluded, because it provided motivation that led to keeping up with healthy eating behaviors and physical activity.

Although more research needs to be done, they concluded, the next step may be investigating whether this supportive accountability makes a difference in other settings, such as sharing exercise and diet data with primary care doctors.

Ditching the Yo-Yo

Finding more strategies that can improve long-term maintenance is crucial for helping people get away from the results of regaining weight and then losing it again, known as the yo-yo effect or weight cycling. Previous research suggests this cycle can be harder on the body than simply being overweight or even having obesity.

For example, preliminary research done for an American Heart Association meeting found that women who have lost at least 10 pounds, only to regain the weight within a year, are more likely to have higher heart disease risk factors—and the more episodes of yo-yo dieting participants had, the higher their risk became.

“We think it’s possible that every time the weight is regained, cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose nudge higher, above the baseline level,” says the lead author of that research, Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, MS, assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, MS

We think it’s possible that every time the weight is regained, cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose nudge higher, above the baseline level.

— Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, MS

In terms of mechanism, Aggarwal says the reason is likely that when you lose weight, you tend to shed a mix of fat and lean muscle tissue. But when you gain it back, it’s only fat, and it settles most often in the abdominal region. Belly fat is strongly associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, she says, so adding more of it within a short timeframe can be problematic.

“Achieving a healthy body weight is important, but equally crucial is maintaining a consistent weight to prevent this type of fat accumulation,” says Aggarwal.

Slow and Steady

One notable, and well-publicized, study?? about weight cycling was based on following several contestants after they had been on the weight-loss show “The Biggest Loser.” That research found significant changes to metabolism because of fast weight loss, and the results weren’t surprising to those who treat overweight patients.

“Your metabolism likes to maintain a ‘set point,’” says Nicole Harkin, MD, cardiologist at Manhattan Cardiovascular Associates. “We don’t yet know what exactly determines that set point, and more importantly, how to reset it.”

What is known, she adds, is that yo-yo dieting can cause metabolic damage over time, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to be permanent. There are ways to support your metabolism, and that involves slower, steady weight loss.

Unlike the reality show contestants, who were encouraged to lose eyebrow-raising amounts like 100 pounds in 30 days, the better way to help your body adjust is to aim for one to two pounds per week, Harkin says.

Side Effect of Healthy Choices

Putting strategies in place, such as the health data sharing, can be part of maintaining that loss, but it’s also crucial not to rush the effort in the first place. Also, it’s even more useful to consider weight loss as a side effect, not a sole focus.

“What we’ve seen in terms of successful weight maintenance is that people who lose weight as a result of healthy lifestyle choices tend to keep it off more successfully,” says Suzanne Phelan, PhD, a kinesiology and public health professor at California Polytechnic State University, who led a study on what weight-loss maintainers have in common.

Suzanne Phelan, PhD

What we’ve seen in terms of successful weight maintenance is that people who lose weight as a result of healthy lifestyle choices tend to keep it off more successfully.

— Suzanne Phelan, PhD

Published in Obesity???, the study surveyed almost 5,000 members of WW—formerly known as Weight Watchers—who lost an average of 50 pounds and didn't regain the weight for at least three years. Researchers looked at 54 behaviors related to weight management, encompassing strategies related to goal-setting, attitudes, food tracking, and types of food consumed. The most prevalent habits tended to be:

  • Keeping low-calorie food accessible
  • Setting daily consumption goals
  • Recording actual food consumed
  • High consumption of fruits and vegetables daily
  • Daily physical activity
  • Avoidance of social isolation
  • Self-encouragement to think positively

That last item is especially important, says Phelan. Those who were most successful with weight maintenance also tended to have the highest levels of self-compassion and self-kindness. That allowed them to get back on track quickly if their weight maintenance efforts seemed to be veering toward weight gain.

“Our society is structured to promote excess weight gain, given the cues we have around eating for comfort and convenience, and sitting most of the time,” says Phelan. “Putting consistent habits in place that are based on mindfulness, self-kindness, and connecting with others can counteract this environment.”

What This Means For You

While losing weight if recommended by your doctor is helpful for achieving health goals, it's equally crucial to develop strategies around maintaining that loss. Sharing health data with a weight-loss coach, cultivating more self-compassion, and putting long-term activity and food habits into place can all be useful for avoiding weight cycling.

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  1. Meghan L. Butryn, Mary K. Martinelli, Nicole T. Crane, Kathryn Godfrey, Savannah R. Roberts, Fengqing Zhang, Evan M. Forman.?Counselor Surveillance of Digital Self‐Monitoring Data: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial.?Obesity. October 23, 2020;28 (12):2339. DOI:10.1002/oby.23015

  2. Phelan, S., Halfman, T., Pinto, A.M. and Foster, G.D. Behavioral and psychological strategies of long‐term weight loss maintainers in a widely available weight management program. Obesity. Published January 23, 2020;28:421-428.?doi:10.1002/oby.22685