Twitter, a popular social media outlet now has another purpose, supporting people on their quest to lose weight.

A group of researchers from the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health discovered that using Twitter as a support system is a beneficial tool in the journey of weight loss.

Led by researcher Brie Turner-McGrievy and published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine, these study findings showed that people who used Twitter gave informational support to each other through status updates.

This study is the first of its kind to analyze Twitter as part of a behavioral weight loss intervention. Earlier studies have touched on Twitter and other social media outlets in an effort to examine health trends and health-related questions.

Turner-McGrievy of the Arnold School’s Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior explained, “The results show that those who regularly utilized Twitter as part of a mobile weight loss program lost more weight.”

The study examined 96 overweight and obese males and females for a six month period, who lived in a city or its surrounding areas. All volunteers had to own one of four different internet-capable mobile devices: Android, Blackberry, iPhone, or iPod Touch. They were then assigned at random to either the podcast-only or podcast plus enhanced mobile media intervention groups.

Each group got two podcasts per week that lasted for 15 minutes for the duration of three months, and two mini-podcasts per week during the third to sixth months that were five minutes long. The chosen podcasts contained information regarding exercise and nutrition as well as goal-setting and an audio soap opera.

Besides the podcasts, participants in the Podcast plus mobile group downloaded a physical activity monitoring application and diet, and a Twitter application to their mobile phone.

Outcomes showed that the Podcast-only group and the Podcast-plus-mobile device group were successful in creating a 2.7 percent reduction in body weight at the six months mark, with no variations between groups.

The assessment aimed to compare the interactions and weight loss results as related to Twitter use, among the Podcast and mobile device group only.

Subjects in the Podcast plus mobile device group followed one another on Twitter with the goal of giving social support to each other as they took part in a weight loss program. Each day they recorded and read messages, receiving the information sent by a weight loss counselor and fellow participants.

Each day two messages were posted to Twitter by the counselor, reinforced information from the podcasts, and positive discussions among participants.

  • In total there were 2,630 twitter posts throughout the six months
  • Around 75 percent of the posts were considered informational. One of the most common teaching posts was a status update from a participant like, “I avoided eating a pastry this morning at a breakfast meeting! I did have a skim Mocha without whipped cream… not too bad”.
  • Emotional support (6.6 percent), providing compliments (4.6 percent), and esteem support were also present.
  • All participants reached a 2.7 percent weight loss at six months, but those using Twitter were more successful with losing weight. Every 10 posts on Twitter coincided with -0.5 weight loss.
  • Researchers were able to examine in detail, interactions that occurred between the volunteers who were actively receiving a behavioral weight loss program.
  • Turner-McGrievy explained:

    “Traditional behavioral weight loss interventions generally provide social support through weekly, face-to-face group meetings. While we know this is effective, it is costly and can create a high degree of burden on participants. Providing group support through online social networks can be a low cost way to reach a large number of people who are interested in achieving a healthy weight.”

    The authors recommend future studies to search for additional ways to give social support for subjects in weight loss programs that are remote in their delivery, focusing on methods that are still useful and rewarding.

    Using Twitter as a tool for weight loss can be used in combination with other self-tracking tools such as wearable sensors and other mobile applications.

    Written by Kelly Fitzgerald