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How social support aids behavioral change

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How social support aids behavioral change

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Bringing people together is probably the thing the web does best of all.  I’ve writtenpreviously about how this easy of community can do wonders for behavioral change towards healthier lifestyles.

For instance, a study found that members of an online community geared towards sexual health promotion behaved much better and for a prolonged period than a control group.

It’s prompted a wave of communities to emerge for all manner of causes and behaviors, whether it’s helping cancer patients or those looking to improve their fitness.

A recent study from researchers at Northwestern University highlights how effective community support is for those looking to lose weight.

It found that when dieters were regularly engaging with fellow members of an online dating community, they lost significantly more weight than those who were dieting alone.

“Our findings suggest that people can do very well at losing weight with minimal professional help when they become centrally connected to others on the same weight loss journey,” the authors say.

The study is believed to be the first to use data from an online weight management program to explore how social engagement between members impacts the success of dieters.

It emerged that those who remained largely solitary in their activity (at least in an online sense) managed to lose around 5 percent of their body weight over a six month period.  This rose to 7 percent when members engaged a little, and 8 percent for those who were engaging the most.

“There is an almost Facebook-like social network system in this program where people can friend each other and build cliques,” the authors say. “In this case, we found the larger your clique, the better your outcomes.”

The researchers used data from the CalorieKing website to gauge things such as the number of recorded weigh-ins, how many friendship requests members received, online communication between members and so on.  No personal data was recorded (age, gender etc.)

“We found that the frequency with which you report your weight is a good indictor of positive outcomes,” the authors say. “If you monitor your weight, you are engaged.f you communicate online with other people you are even more engaged, and when you need support you might be able to get it. There are some nice characteristics about this social network.”

Suffice to say, lifestyle change is generally required for sustained weight loss, so taking a dedicated approach to this shift is widely regarded as the best approach.  Whilst such dedication was therefore to be expected, the importance of social support was more surprising.

“In the clinic, we don’t have the ability to connect people with such a large network of others on the same journey to lose weight,” the authors say. “I was very surprised by how lawfully each step-up in social connectedness translated into greater weight loss. We could clearly see the benefit of the online social network for weight-loss success.”

The authors believe that this community support effect could have similar implications for other programs of behavioral change, such as depression or alcoholism.

“Modern life is so complex and stressful, to go somewhere for a meeting is often not practical,” they conclude. “It is hopeful that this alternative approach, of going online for support, could work.”

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