Strangers on the Internet Can Make You More Fit

The best fitness motivator may be an anonymous friend, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers found that social media can be an effective way of improving exercise habits, and that specific "health buddies" can make all the difference - even if you only interact with them online.

The study included 217 graduate students who enrolled in free exercise classes at the University of Pennsylvania. One group of students received promotional and motivational messages regarding fitness, exercise and health. Another group of participants were placed into 6-person peer groups, where subjects were anonymous to one another but were regularly updated on each other's progress and exercise achievements. People in this "health buddies" group were also able to monitor one another's progress on a website and were notified when their buddies signed up for classes. A third control group received no follow-up during the study.

Buddies are effective for behavior change

After 13 weeks, results showed that - while causing an initial spike in class attendence - promotional messages had nearly no long-term impact on class participation.

The health buddies group, however, saw dramatic results: the participants' motivation increased and enrollment levels also went up.

"While in most popular social networks, signals are mixed between positive and negative - one friend might talk about enjoying a spin class while another might revel in a night spent eating pizza on the couch - the network in this study provided live updates only about positive exercise behavior," a press release on the study stated.

These positive updates created a "reinforcing loop" that motivated all participants to exercise more, said Jingwen Zhang, study author.

Despite the fact that the participants didn't know one another, the study shows how social networks can be effective for positive lifestyle changes, like exercise, smoking cessation or healthy eating.

"You just have to put people into the right kind of social environment where they can interact with each other," said study leader Damon Centola, "and even anonymous social interaction will create behavior change."

Source: University of Pennsylvania

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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