In the last few years, the steady growth of health apps, wearables and internet-enabled health gadgets has ushered in a new era for health and fitness – the digital health era.
A digital health devotee wakes up in the morning and steps on a smart scale that sends weight and body fat measurements straight to her smart phone. As she walks through the house each step is captured by an activity tracker hanging from her wrist, as was every minute of her sleep the night before. After breakfast, calories are logged on her nutrition app and on the commute to work our devotee does brain training exercises through an app on her phone.
This story could go on and on. Smart toothbrushes, smart pill dispensers, internet-enabled blood glucose monitors and a long list of health apps and gadgets are digitising all aspects of our health.
These digital health tools are empowering us to quantify and care for our health like never before. This is great for us, but it’s taking its toll on the diet companies that came to prominence at the beginning of the age of obesity.
THE DEATH OF THE DIET DINOSAURS
Since 2011, titans of the weight loss industry like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have seen huge profit falls and analysts are pointing fingers at their reluctance to fully embrace digital health.
Since 2011, Weight Watchers’ stock price has tanked, from peaks of $85 to record lows of $4 at the time of writing. Weight Watchers’ fall coincides with the rise of digital health businesses that are now established names. For example:
- Fitbit launched its first fitness tacker in 2011.
- Withings released its internet-enabled bathroom scales in 2009.
- Runkeeper’s free GPS fitness-tracking app was released in 2008
- MyFitnessPal calorie counting web app was released in 2005.
Although Weight Watchers is considering using internet-enabled bathroom scales for its members, and are integrating with devices like Fitbit and Jawbone in the UK, the company’s core strategy – a reliance on revenue generated from group meeting sales – has not changed. This is a problem, as meeting revenues have declined for four years straight. Unless something changes, Weight Watchers will fade into irrelevance.
IS IT JUST STRATEGY?
However, the failure of Weight Watchers can’t be placed solely on its reluctance to embrace digital health. Their impending demise is also due to the quality of its products.
The largest scientific review of diets ever conducted found that diets, including Weight Watchers, do not work. In fact, 2 in 3 dieters put on more weight after going on a diet, leaving them worse off than before the diet.
WILL DIGITAL HEALTH SAVE THE DAY?
Digital health is slowly breaking our reliance on the cookie cutter diets sold by these multinational leviathans. This is because digital health has democratised one of the most effective behaviour change tools ever known – the ability to self-monitor our behaviour.
Tracking behaviour is a core element of all proven behaviour change techniques; mainly because when you measure (e.g. tracking your weight, nutrition, and/or exercise) you manage. Many of these digital tools help to change behaviour. Research shows that:
- Pedometers can significantly increase physical activity (activity trackers like Fitbit are pimped out pedometers);
- regular monitoring of weight is associated with greater weight loss maintenance after 2 years (think Fitbit’s wireless bathroom scales); and
- digital monitoring of food intake has been shown to be equivalent to paper-and-pencil methods for its effectiveness in promoting weight loss (e.g. MyFitnessPal or MyDietDiary).
However, there are concerns that wearables aren’t actually being worn. A report by Endeavour Partners found half the people who’ve owned an activity tracker don’t use it anymore, and a third of these people stopped using it within six months.
On top of this, concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of digital health apps and gadgets on their own. As a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association points out, tracking behaviour, although required, is not enough to change it. For long term changes to exercise, nutrition and weight, self-tracking needs to be combined with expert guidance.
Fortunately, a handful of companies have emerged in recent years combining traditional health coaching with digital health technology. This amalgamation has led to the creation of a new breed of online weight loss programs – programs that are producing results never seen before.
THE NEW BREED: ONLINE WEIGHT LOSS PROGRAMS
Associating this new breed of online weight loss programs with the diet dinosaurs isn’t accurate or fair.
Diet companies sell short term solutions that do not work. The new breed offer evidence-based solutions that focus on creating lifestyle changes that are sustained for the long-term.
An excellent example of Diet 2.0 is Omada Health. Omada offers online weight loss programs aimed at preventing type 2 diabetes through exercise, good nutrition and weight loss. The program was assessed against best practice face-to-face health coaching and results show Omada’s program is more than twice as effective in tems of weight loss outcomes. And, staggeringly, it’s almost ten times more engaging than Jenny Craig’s platinum product offering. It’s no wonder Omada was ranked one of the 50 most innovative companies for 2015.
Our company, Smart Habits, is following in the footsteps of Omada. We provide online weight loss programs throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Asia Pacific, and our clients are seeing great results. On top of losing weight and creating smart eating and exercise habits, our clients are building the skillset and mindset that’s required to keep weight off for the long-term. This includes understanding how habits work; identifying and challenging the thinking patterns that derail us when trying to make lifestyle changes; building proactive coping methods; and learning how to buy, prepare, and cook food.
As companies like Omada Health have shown, the combination of traditional health coaching with digital health technology works wonders, and the team at Smart Habits is excited to be leading the charge in the Asia Pacific.
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