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Study Suggests Social Media Can Aid Weight Loss

Sharing the triumphs and tribulations of one's weight-loss journey with other members of an online virtual support community plays an important role in achieving success, according to a new study from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). "Weight Loss Through Virtual Support Communities: A Role for Identity-Based Motivation in Public Commitment" examines the role of virtual communities and public commitment in setting and reaching weight-loss goals.

"Our research finds that individuals are more likely to realize success with personal goals when they make a public commitment to attaining them," says Tonya Williams Bradford, PhD, a study coauthor and an assistant professor of marketing at UCI's Paul Merage School of Business. "By sharing success and setbacks in virtual support communities on social media, we found people are achieving better results. This works especially well with goals like weight loss, where before and after images can be shared online with other community members."

Along with Bradford, the study was coauthored by Sonya Grier, PhD, MBA, from American University, and Geraldine R. Henderson, PhD, MBA, from Loyola University Chicago, and is published in the Journal of Interactive Marketing. The research follows two weight-loss groups, surgical and nonsurgical, over a four-year period. Members of both weight-loss groups used virtual support communities, such as ObesityHelp.com and WeightWatchers.com, as part of their programs.

"Through our research we found public commitment, which is a declaration of a position, increases the likelihood of compliance to a course of action and is a key part of a successful weight-loss plan," Bradford says. "When people seeking to lose weight join a virtual support community and share their plans online to attain their goals, they invite members to join them by offering encouragement in both words and actions. This exchange of online support facilitates adherence to the offline goal of losing weight. Public accountability is key."

The study also found that virtual support communities offer a unique environment that allows members relative anonymity, accessibility, availability, and flexibility in how they represent themselves on their journeys. According to Bradford, it's the process of building community and the cocreation of related outcomes that helps in keeping participants motivated and accountable.

— Source: University of California, Irvine Paul Merage School of Business