Losing weight online

Rob Thompson knew by looking in the mirror that he needed to do something different. Years of slow weight gain finally caught up with the 55-year-old Columbia resident.

So when Thompson heard about the Arnold School of Public Health’s iReach weight loss study, he acted.

“I’m really good at losing weight,” Thompson says. “And I’m really good at putting it back on.”

But Thompson had high hopes for this new 18-month program in part because of the constant monitoring by public health researchers.

For the first year, iReach participants must “attend” a weekly online class. That’s where Thompson learned minor changes — such as making a substitution for mayonnaise ­­­­— could have noticeable results.

“What they talked about in class is, ‘if you bite it, you must write it,' ” Thompson says. “So you’re constantly keeping up with that food diary.”

Thompson now swears by food diaries. “You’re cognizant of everything you put in your mouth.”

By knowing the exact number of calories consumed, study participants know how many calories they will need to burn. Physical activity is monitored through a wearable activity tracker that counts the number of steps taken during the day.

As a photographer with the State Department of Transportation, Thompson is required to travel around South Carolina. He also works part-time as a night watchman at Riverbanks Zoo, which allows him to reach his step goal. 

Thompson lost 40 pounds, which is the result Delia West likes to see. West is the iReach principal investigator and director of the Technology Center to Promote Healthy Lifestyles.

“The wonderful thing about having people in our program for 18 months is they not only can lose weight, but they learn the skills to maintain that weight loss throughout their lives,” West says.

There have been a total of three iReach programs funded through the National Institutes of Health. The Arnold School is partnering with the University of Vermont over a five-year period to complete iReach3, which is funded by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

The first iReach study compared the online weight control program with the same program offered face-to-face. Then, iReach2 added motivational interviewing to the online program.

The current study, iReach3, adds a financial incentive to the online weight control program and is currently recruiting for its final classes that begin in January.

“Our previous studies showed our program to be one of the most effective online programs currently available,” West says. “In iReach3, we are trying to determine if our results can be improved by the addition of financial incentives for self-weighing, keeping a food journal, walking for exercise and meeting certain weight loss or weight maintenance goals.”

It might seem like a no-brainer that incentives will help, but West says there may be downsides to offering incentives.  

“Do people stay motivated to continue with the behavior changes if they are getting money to change? The iReach program will answer these important public health questions.”

Everyone in iReach3 receives the same proven weight loss program delivered in online groups for social support and facilitated by a skilled set of nutritionists, health psychologists, kinesiologists and health physiologists. Half of the participants will be randomly assigned to the group that receives the financial incentives. The program is offered at no charge to the participants.

West and her team are looking for people who are 18 years old or older, not currently pregnant or planning to become pregnant in the next two years, able to walk for physical activity, have a body mass index of between 25-50, comfortable with the internet and willing to sign-up for the My Fitness Pal app.

For more information about the study and to apply, visit the iReach3 website.

But for past participants such as Thompson, who didn’t receive a financial reward, the major lesson of the study was the knowledge that lifestyle changes need to be made if the weight is to come off — and stay off.

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