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Can Twitter Help Clients Lose Weight?

by Jeff Stensland on Jan 24, 2013

If you have overweight clients who love their social media, you may want to point them in the direction of Twitter. A new study has found that Twitter use helped subjects achieve a healthy weight.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health found that Twitter use among participants in a weight loss program was linked to greater weight loss. Published in the January 13 issue of Translational Behavioral Medicine, the study also revealed that participants mainly used Twitter to provide informational support to one another through status updates.

Although researchers have used Twitter and other social networking sites to study health trends and explore how people use these sites to discuss health-related questions and topics, this study is one of the first to examine the use of Twitter as part of a behavioral weight loss intervention. "The results show that those who regularly utilized Twitter as part of a mobile weight loss program lost more weight,” said Brie Turner-McGrievy, lead researcher, of the Arnold School's department of health promotion, education and behavior.

The study followed 96 overweight and obese men and women living in a metropolitan area over a 6-month period. All participants were required to own one of four types of Internet-capable mobile devices: iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry or an Android-based phone. Participants were randomly assigned to either the podcast-only group (Podcast-only) or the podcast plus enhanced mobile media intervention group (Podcast + mobile).

Both groups received two 15-minute podcasts per week for 3 months (15 minutes each) and then two 5-minute podcasts per week for the remainder of the study. Podcasts included information about nutrition and exercise, goal setting and even an audio soap opera. In addition to the podcasts, the Podcast + mobile group downloaded a diet– and physical activity–monitoring app and a Twitter app to their mobile device.

The main study found that the Podcast-only and the Podcast + mobile delivery methods were both effective in producing a 2.7% decrease in body weight at 6 months, with no difference between the groups.

The current analysis sought to explore the interactions and weight loss outcomes, as related to Twitter use among the Podcast + mobile group only.

Participants in the Podcast + mobile group followed each other on Twitter with the goal of providing social support to one another as they participated in the weight loss program. They were asked to log on daily to read and post messages so they would receive the content delivered by a weight loss counselor and fellow participants. Two daily messages, posted to Twitter by the weight loss counselor, reinforced content from the podcasts and encouraged discussion among participants.

Among the study's findings:

  • Over the 6-month period, there were 2,630 Twitter posts.
  • Seventy-five percent of the posts were informational, with most characterized as “teaching” posts (providing new facts or skills). One of the most frequent types of teaching posts was a status update from a participant (81% of all teaching posts), such as "I avoided eating a pastry this morning at a breakfast meeting! I did have a skim Mocha without whipped cream . . . not too bad.”
  • Other types of support offered were emotional support, through demonstrating listening (6.6%), and esteem support, through providing compliments (4.6%).
  • After 6 months, both Podcast-only and Podcast + mobile participants had achieved a 2.7% weight loss. However, those who engaged with Twitter were more successful at losing weight, with every 10 posts to Twitter corresponding to approximately a 0.5% weight loss.

A strength of the study, Turner-McGrievy said, was the researchers' ability to have an in-depth examination of the interactions that took place among a group of people who were actively receiving a behavioral weight loss program.

“Traditional behavioral weight loss interventions generally provide social support through weekly, face-to-face group meetings. While we know this is effective, it is costly and can create a high degree of burden on participants," she said. "Providing group support through online social networks can be a low-cost way to reach a large number of people who are interested in achieving a healthy weight.”

Additional studies should be conducted to find engaging, rewarding and useful ways to provide social support for participants in remotely delivered weight loss programs, said Turner-McGrievy.

Note: This report first appeared on the University of South Carolina website. It has been lightly edited.

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About the Author

Jeff Stensland

Jeff Stensland IDEA Author/Presenter