Text messaging may help kids fight obesity

Text messaging may help children ward off obesity later in life, a new study says, when used as a tool to monitor and change their current diet and exercise habits.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that children who kept lifestyle behaviour diaries via text messaging were more likely to stick with diet and exercise goals and were more likely to continue to self-monitor compared to children who used a paper diary to monitor their behaviour.

The goal was to make self monitoring seem fun and easy to children who were tyring to lose weight, and text messaging technology is something most of them are familiar with, said lead study author Jennifer R. Shapiro, an assistant psychiatry professor at the UNC medical school.

"Self-monitoring of calorie intake and expenditure and of body weight is extremely important for the long-term success of weight loss and weight control," Shapiro said.

"Unfortunately, both children and adults who are trying to lose weight often do not adhere to self-monitoring. They tend to be good about self-monitoring at the start of a weight-loss effort, but then their adherence drops off over time."

Recent statistics show that Canada has a growing problem with obesity.

About 26 per cent of Canadian kids between the ages of two and 17 are considered obese or overweight, according to Statistics Canada.

In addition, 2004 stats show that 5.5 million adults, about 23 per cent of the population aged 18 or older, are obese.

That's up from 14 per cent of the population in 1978/79.

People who try to lose weight are often told to use paper diaries to monitor their progress, Shapiro said. They take note of how many calories they consume and burn and they monitor weight fluctuations.

Shapiro and her colleagues decided to test if text messaging could be more successful in children, especially if they received supportive feedback messages from their parents.

Fifty-eight children aged five to 13, along with their parents, first participated in seminars that encouraged them to engage in physical activity, decrease time in front of the television and reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

The children were then given pedometers to track the number of steps they took each day as well as goals to meet for steps taken, minutes spent in front of the television and the number of sugary drinks consumed each day.

Children who monitored their progress via text messaging and paper diaries had to record data for each of these categories.

However, the children who were given a cellphone for text messaging had to send two messages per day with information from all three categories. Those messages automatically generated a feedback message such as, "Wow, you met your step and screen time goals - congratulations! What happened to your beverages?"

The researchers found that only 28 per cent of kids in the text messaging group left the study, compared to 61 per cent who used a paper diary and 50 per cent who did not monitor their progress at all.

The findings also showed that 43 per cent of children who used text message continued to self monitor, compared to only 19 per cent in the paper diary group.

The findings suggest that text messaging may be a useful tool for improving health in children, Shapiro said.

"Cellphone text messaging is something that's very familiar to most children now, since they've grown up with it," Shapiro said. "By using this technology, we were hoping to make self-monitoring seem more like fun to them and less like work."

The findings are published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.