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UMass Chan researchers find Twitter an effective weight loss tool for users of social media

  Sherry Pagoto, PhD

Sherry Pagoto, PhD, is the corresponding author on the study. 

Private Twitter weight-loss groups are a feasible, effective and acceptable way to provide an alternative means of life intervention counseling to people who are social media users, according to research by UMass Medical School behavioral and quantitative health experts.

The study, published in JMIR Research Protocols, evaluates the use of social media to deliver weight loss counseling and reduce the frequency of patient visits, thus reducing medical costs. It is the latest in a series of studies by Sherry Pagoto, PhD, associate professor of medicine, and a team of UMMS researchers.

“This series of studies showed that using a private Twitter group as an adjunct or alternative to an in-person behavioral weight-loss program is feasible and acceptable in a sample of adults with obesity who did not have depression and who were regular users of social media, though inexperienced with Twitter,” Dr. Pagoto said.

Pagoto, who is the corresponding author, was joined in the study by UMMS colleagues Molly Waring, PhD, assistant professor of quantitative health sciences; Jessica Oleski, MA, research project director; Effie Olendzki, MS, research coordinator; Rashelle Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of medicine; and Stephenie Lemon, PhD, professor of medicine.

Through an iterative series of pilot studies, three groups of participants with varying degrees of experience using social media sites but not experienced in using Twitter, evaluated the use of online social networks to deliver weight-loss information.

The first group included 10 adults with obesity and depression who received lifestyle counseling via 12 weekly group visits and a private group formed on Twitter; this group’s mean weight loss was 2.3 pounds, or 1.2 percent of baseline weight. The second group included 11 adults with obesity but not depression who were regular users of social media, although not Twitter; this group lost, on average, 5.6 pounds or 3 percent of baseline weight and received similar counseling to the first group. The third group, which included 12 adults with the same inclusion criteria as those in the second group, had just a single group counseling session plus a 12-week lifestyle intervention delivered entirely via a private Twitter community; this group lost, on average, 5.4 pounds or 3 percent of baseline.

Based on participant feedback, the researchers determined that the group with the greatest familiarity with social media tools benefited most from using the private Twitter-based communities. However, all of the groups said their private Twitter community during the study was at least as good as or a significantly greater source of weight-related social support than their close family and friends (67 percent of group one; 100 percent of group two; and 90 percent of group three).

Researchers concluded that using commercial online social network platforms like Twitter to deliver behavioral weight-loss counseling may be a less expensive and more convenient alternative to traditional modalities that require numerous clinic visits.

“These findings have broad implications for delivering behavioral counseling interventions that tend to require numerous patient visits, which are logistically difficult for patients to attend or simply not covered by health insurance,” said Pagoto.