Internet and social media can be more effective for improving people's exercise habits than promotional advertisements, revealed a new study by researchers from University of Pennsylvania. The findings suggest that 'Health buddies' on Facebook can actually inspire you to hit the gym or motivate you to do yoga in the neighborhood park, resulting in a new, fitter you.
Led by Professor Damon Centola, the research team tested a fitness motivator that can be more effective and vastly cheaper than promotions. In a trial, the team created a website where 217 graduate students enrolled in free exercise classes at the University gym.
Part of the study group received promotional messages from the University, including highly engaging motivational videos and infographics emphasizing fitness tips and the importance of exercise. Meanwhile, the other group saw no advertising messages, but these members were placed into social networks with six of their peers.
Although these peer groups remained anonymous to one another, participants were regularly updated on each others' fitness achievements. They could monitor each others' progress through the website. If any person signed up for a weightlifting or yoga class, the others in the group were notified by email.
As a control group for the two interventions, a third group of study participants received no further follow-up through the study. By the end of the 13-week study, researchers observed that promotional messages caused an initial bump in class attendance but the motivational effects soon wore off. This intervention had almost no long-term effect on class participation.
Centola said, "Health buddies, on the other hand, were much more effective at motivating people to exercise." Jingwen Zhang, an author on the study, added, "We were able to use the positive signals to form a reinforcing loop that pushed everyone to exercise more. The results reveal that same positive behavior signals are also powerful in our online networks and can be harnessed for the social good. This approach could be applied not only to encourage exercise, but also to promote vaccinations, medication compliance and preventative care."
The study was published in Preventive Medicine Reports.