Web and social media can be used to encourage people to exercise more and also promote vaccinations and medication compliance, scientists say.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, led by professor Damon Centola of the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, have found a way to make the web and social media more effective for improving people’s exercise habits. (Also read: Why you need to exercise more than your parents did)
Researchers said they tested a fitness motivator that can be more effective – and vastly cheaper – than promotional advertisements: programme-assigned “health buddies.”
In a randomised controlled trial, the researchers created a website where 217 graduate students enrolled in free exercise classes at the University of Pennsylvania gym. (Also read: Exercise helps reduce daytime sleepiness)
Part of the group also received promotional messages from the University, including highly engaging motivational videos and infographics emphasising fitness tips and the importance of exercise.
Meanwhile, another part of the group saw no advertising messages. Instead, members of this group were placed into social networks with six of their peers.
While these peer groups remained anonymous to one another, participants were regularly updated on each other’s fitness achievements.
They could monitor each other’s progress on the website, and when one signed up for a weightlifting or yoga class, for example, the others were notified by email.
As a control group for the two interventions, a final group of participants received no further follow-up through the study.
By the end of the 13 week study, researchers found that promotional messages caused an initial bump in class attendance, but the motivational effects quickly wore off. The promotional messages had almost no long term effect on class participation.
Programme-assigned “buddies,” on the other hand, were much more effective at motivating people to exercise. As the weeks went by, the motivating effects increased, producing a substantial growth in enrollment levels among people in peer networks.
The study utilised a model developed through Centola’s previous research on online group dynamics.
While in most popular social networks, signals are mixed between positive and negative – one friend might talk about enjoying a spin class while another might revel in a night spent eating pizza on the couch – the network in this study provided live updates only about positive exercise behaviour.
“We were able to use the positive signals to form a reinforcing loop that pushed everyone to exercise more,” said Jingwen Zhang, an author on the study.
The approach could be applied not only to encourage exercise, but also to promote vaccinations, medication compliance, and preventative care, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.