Wellness Web

An array of online tools allow you to interact with other health-minded people.

by Linda Melone

June 2013

Tweeting, pinning and posting on Facebook can do more than earn you friends and followers—it can also help you lose weight and get healthy.

If you are online it is likely that you are on at least one social network. According to the Pew Research Center’s recent Internet & America Life Project Election Survey, 67% of online adults engage on Facebook, 16% are on Twitter and 15% use Pinterest, the three most popular sites.

Socializing with others in the virtual realm can help you stick with a health program and find other people who share similar interests. In fact, several studies show the benefits of social influence.

Thomas W. Valente, PhD, professor of preventive medicine from the University of Southern California, researches social networks and their influence. “The simple act of doing things with other people makes it more likely you’ll stick with it and be consistent,” says Valente. “Social networking allows you to find groups of people and coordinate the activities you enjoy with other people you’d like to exercise with. It makes exercise a lot more fun.”

Tracking Public Health

Twitter may also help scientists track trends in public health. Two Johns Hopkins University computer scientists, Mark Dredze and Michael J. Paul, discovered patterns by reviewing 2 billion Twitter posts (often referred to as a “mini blog”) on ailments such as allergies, obesity, cancer, insomnia and influenza.

They found several surprises. “Thousands of people tweeted about using antibiotics to treat the flu, for example,” says Paul. Since antibiotics are mostly ineffective against the flu, it shows that the general public may lack information or be misinformed. The tweets also showed that allergy season starts earlier in warmer parts of the country and later in the Northeast and the Midwest. This may help healthcare professionals use such data to monitor seasonal and regional trends regarding illnesses such as influenza.

Another study, by researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, found that using Twitter enabled participants in a weight loss program to increase their chances of success.

The study followed 96 overweight men and women over six months. The participants who downloaded a Twitter app were more successful at losing weight; approximately 0.5% weight loss was linked to every 10 posts (over 2,600 tweets were posted). The tweets were posted by the weight loss counselor, reinforcing information learned through podcasts and encouraging interactions among the participants.

Hashtags and Searches

Finding topics of interest on a social networking site involves use of simple search tools. A search on Facebook for “running groups,” for example, turns up organizations around the world. Search for tennis or any other sport or activity to find other like-minded people. Groups may be open, in which anyone can join, or they may be closed or secret, in which members must be approved. Many Facebook groups have coordinating Twitter accounts.

Finding health-related topics on Twitter involves a simple search using hashtags, says Laney Cohen, fitness and health blogger, member of the fitness ambassador program Fitfluential and a digital strategist in the Washington, DC area. The hashtag (#) symbol on Twitter categorizes the hashtagged tweets so they show up easily in Twitter searches. Clicking on a word with a hashtag within any message takes you to other tweets with that same hashtag.

“I find people on Twitter using hashtag searches such as #fitfluential, #sweatpink and others,” says Cohen. “You can find workouts, classes and fitness bloggers.” If you follow someone on Twitter who mentions another person with similar interests, check out that person’s profile to see if they’re worth following, too. Create lists of categories to track topics such as “weight loss,” “healthy,” etc.

You can also search for people in your geographic area, says Cohen. “Joining a running group is also good for inspiration, accountability and to track your progress.” The Daily Mile, for example, is a Twitter-type social networking that allows runners to track their daily mileage and time, and comment on their workouts. The site allows you to track your routes, find motivation to improve or compete with friends. You can link onto the site via Facebook and Twitter.

Visual Web

While Twitter and Facebook engage users primarily through words, Pinterest does the same with visual “boards.” “Pinterest is part of a trend towards the visual web,” says Karen LeLand, San Francisco based social media expert and author of Entre­preneur Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to Pinterest for Business (Entrepreneur Press). Based on pinboard-style sharing, Pinterest allows users to collect and create themes of images, such as favorite interests, recipes, foods and products. Images are organized in boards, which may be secret or public. As with Twitter, you can follow other people’s boards so their pins show up on your home feed.

Although more people post items under “home” than any other category (17%), food is the fastest growing, according to RJ Metrics. “A lot of people are very much into recipes,” says Leland. A search option enables you to search under “healthy” or “low-calorie food” to find that particular topic. You can then repin the recipe onto your own board. Such repins account for 80% of all pinning. “It’s easy to do and you can see the most popular pins this way,” says Leland.

Many websites give the reader an option to post the information or photo to Pinterest, which makes it easy to collect recipes, exercises or motivational images. “Pinterest is also unique in that it provides the content or link through the information,” says Leland. So clicking on a pin can take you to the pinner’s blog or other source.

In addition, users can start a discussion board simply by naming one. Others can then repin or offer comments on the new board, offering support or exchanging ideas. “Pinterest has an organic exploratory nature that takes you to interesting places,” says Leland, who says the average viewer spends an hour on the social media site.

Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest are only a small part of the social media world. Each provides motivation and accountability. “It weaves the novel and new and interesting into your goals,” says Leland.

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