Friends With Fitness

Study Suggests Online Activity Tied to Weight Loss

Whether it’s working out with a gym buddy, or playing on a recreational team, social interaction can be a powerful tool when it comes to working out. As it turns out, that social component can also be effective online. New research from Northwestern Medicine suggests that high levels of social engagement are associated with greater weight loss in an online weight management community.

Led by Bonnie Spring, PhD, professor in Preventive Medicine, and Luis Amaral, PhD, professor in Medicine and the McCormick School of Engineering, the Northwestern Medicine scientists conducted the first study of its kind. Using an online weight management program to explore the influence of social networking, the research revealed that high levels of online connection promote weight loss.

With data provided by Calorieking.com, including sign-up date, age, height, gender, initial weight and time-stamped activities, the scientists compared social engagement and weight loss. For the purposes of the study, Dr. Spring and her team defined social engagement as how frequently members logged in, recorded weigh-ins, and ‘friended’ or interacted with other members of the Calorieking.com community.

The Northwestern Medicine scientists discovered that how frequently someone reports their weight is a strong indicator of positive weight loss outcomes. The Calorieking.com social network functions similarly to Facebook, allowing members to connect with each other and form groups. Participation in a large group and frequent contact with other members also strongly promoted weight loss.

Social Support From Shared Investment

Previous studies of offline behavior suggested that diligent self-monitoring would be positively associated with weight loss. The scientists found this to be true online as well with the members who logged their workouts regularly. However, the research also revealed that greater weight loss is associated with social activity in the community. 

Specifically, the study discovered that with high interaction – connecting with more than 10 friends – resulted in weight loss of over 8 percent of body weight over six months. In comparison, those with minimal connection (2-9 friends) lost almost 7 percent of their body weight and members with no connections lost only 5 percent.

As more and more people invest in their health and wellness, online social groups are developing into highly effective support networks to achieve shared fitness goals. In addition to a platform for one’s own goals and milestones, online communities provide encouragement, inspiration and advice from peers with shared experiences, interests and commitment.

A health and lifestyle center can also provide significant support for your weight loss goals. For those unable to reach a center regularly, the Northwestern Medicine study suggests that active engagement in an online weight loss program is a positive approach, as well. The scientists are hopeful that the implications of their research could affect change in other areas of behavioral medicine, such as depression and alcoholism.