Long hours spent online have been previously linked to weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle. A new study, however, found that social media can actually motivate one to become fit.

New research published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports showed that the Web, particularly “health buddies” on social media, can positively affect exercise habits.

The team from University of Pennsylvania, led by Damon Centola of the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, tested a fitness motivator against promotions and created a website where 217 graduate students enrolled in free gym classes at the university.

One group received promotional messages that included motivational exercise videos and graphics containing fitness tips and advice, while another saw no advertisements but instead were immersed in social networks with six of their peers.

The peer groups remained unknown to each other but regularly exchanged notes on their fitness achievements and progress – when one signed up for yoga, the others would be notified via email, for example.

The 13-week study found that in the promotional-messages group, there was an “initial bump” in gym attendance, but the motivational effects quickly waned, with no long-term impact on class participation.

In the health-buddies group, however, the motivating effects rose and produced “a substantial growth” in enrollment rates among those in peer networks.

Contrary to the mixed signals in most popular social networks, the networks in this research offered live updates only about positive behaviors in exercising.

Cendola said that versus expensive promotional messaging, one can simply “put people into the right kind of social environment” to create or maintain positive behavior.

Simply knowing that one’s peers are going to do yoga is good motivation to wear one’s workout gear – and using an “incredibly cost-effective” technology, the study added.

The researchers also recommend this approach to be applied to other areas such as vaccinations, preventive care, and medication compliance.

In separate experiments, the team is currently testing what leads to increased social network participation, may it be friendly social support or competition.

Photo: Dave Rosenblum | Flickr

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