Losing weight and maintaining healthy habits is a challenge for many people – and their partner often has a significant influence.
Research has shown that people tend to enter intimate relationships with people of similar weight status and gain weight together over time. Despite this fact, most weight loss interventions focus on individuals rather than couples.
Amy Gorin, along with Deborah Tate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and colleagues at UConn’s Weight Management Research Group, has received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate using mobile technology to support couples-based weight loss interventions. Gorin is the interim vice provost for health sciences, a professor of psychological sciences, and director of the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP).
The team will use a mobile health, or mHealth, approach in this study to evaluate four components of couples’ weight loss interventions on a web-based smart phone app.
“Reaching couples is difficult – many have work or family demands that make attending a weight loss program impossible,” Gorin says. “Using an mHealth platform opens accessibility in ways we haven’t had before.”
The trial will include 368 cohabitating couples who are overweight or have obesity. All couples will get a basic, evidence-based behavioral weight loss intervention package that includes a diet and exercise prescription. Each couple will also be randomly assigned to one or a combination of four experimental components.
The first component the trial will evaluate is a “joint action plan.” Couples will create a plan and goals for the week together in the app. These goals may include exercising together or determining who will take on household or childcare responsibilities each day so that they each have time to exercise or cook healthy meals.
The second component is “joint feedback on goal progress.” Through this component, participants will be able to see how their partner is doing with their weight loss and behavioral goals.
The app will also generate weekly feedback on goal progress, similar to what a weight loss counselor would do.
We teach partners how to value each other’s independence to make their own weight management choices and provide support in a non-judgmental fashion. — Amy Gorin
The third component is “autonomy support,” a concept Gorin tested in a prior trial. This encourages partners to support one another without shaming each other for faltering from their goals or acting as the “food police.”
“We teach partners how to value each other’s independence to make their own weight management choices and provide support in a non-judgmental fashion,” Gorin says.
The fourth component will be improving the home environment to support healthy choices. This will include making sure there are healthy foods available in the house and minimizing unhealthier options.
“Our focus is to help couples make the healthy choice the easy choice in their homes,” Gorin says.
The results of this trial will help the research team determine which component, or combination of components, provide the most effective approach to couples’ weight loss interventions.
“We tend to think about weight as an individual problem, when in reality those around you have a big impact,” Gorin says. “The approach we are testing aims to harnesses these dyadic dynamics to support healthy weight management.”