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Arnold School of Public Health


Social Media Can Provide the Support Needed to Maintain Weight Loss

March 6, 2015

The below story was written by April Blake and is republished here from Newswise.

How can Facebook aid someone in their weight loss journey? According to recent research from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and published in Translational Behavioral Medicine, use of the social media site can be associated with a significant drop in pounds, especially during the critical maintenance period of a weight loss journey, where support from the clinical staff decreases.

Lead author Sarah B. Hales found that people who are engaged with social media in the context of their weight loss do well, but that keeping people actively engaged in these programs can be a challenge. She, along with co-authors Charis Davidson and Brie Turner-McGrievy sought to assess what type of posts draw the most engagement in the form of likes and responses. Looking at the source of the post, be it another participant or a counselor who is looked to as a trusted health authority; and if the structure of the post would spur interaction, the researchers hypothesized that the most active participants would have the most weight loss over the four month maintenance period, and that posts from the counselors would bring in the most user interactions.

Participants were recruited for a weight loss study that included a four month follow up support period to test the effects of different plant-based diets for weight loss. Joining the Facebook group for the particular diet plan that each participant was assigned to was optional. Counselors posted five different types of posts to each diet group each weekday for the maintenance period.

Examples of some of the post types include a brief poll asking participants, “What’s the most challenging meal for you to prepare each day? Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, or Snacks?” or sharing recipes that fell within the assigned diet. Study counselors then tallied the number of Facebook interactions, which included views to a post, likes, responses to posts from either another participant or a counselor, and self-initiated posts. “The findings from the current study show that people may engage with social media more if the messages they are reading encourage them to respond in some way or provide suggestions to help others,” said Hales. The post type that garnered the highest engagement was in response to polls, with a significantly greater number of poll votes and comments by participants in response to a counselor posting a poll, compared to the other four post types. Posts from counselors that solicited feedback, offered suggestions, and weight-related posts also prompted the most engagement within the framework of the social media support group.

“More research should be conducted to determine what differences may exist in how support is provided via social media versus traditional methods in clinical settings,” said Hales. This information can aid in designing future interventions that are delivered via remote technology or to find other ways to use social media to provide the needed support to people to engage in and maintain healthy behaviors, like healthy eating and physical activity.