Ben Darling's alarm screams to life at 4:45 a.m. By 5:15, after breakfast, he's en route to 24 Hour Fitness in Omaha. Every day before work. Just ask his Twitter followers.
Darling is like many Americans who use social media to hold themselves accountable to health goals that they used to keep to themselves. Their friends and followers can track their progress, encourage their healthy choices and inspire them to go to the gym or skip dessert when motivation is running low. It can be a powerful tool in shaping behavior, said local sports psychologist Jack Stark, and modifying behavior is the first step in reversing the obesity epidemic in the U.S.
More than half of Americans are overweight or obese, and four in five adults do not meet national exercise guidelines, according to a 2011 Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey.
“We know from research that the solution is reinforcement,” Stark said. “So we turn to Twitter, we turn to Facebook, we turn to cell phones, and we get a lot of reinforcement. We get immediate feedback. It's a powerful thing.”
With the click of a button, you can update all your friends and followers. In turn, they can instantly “like,” “favorite” or comment on your post.
Kasia Burton, a dietician who works for ConAgra and is based in Illinois, incorporated Facebook into the company's weight loss program.
“The idea was to be able to offer a platform where participants could ask questions, share weight loss success stories and hopefully motivate others to stay on the program,” she said.
It worked. Those who chose to join the Facebook group lost, on average, nearly twice the weight over four weeks than those who did not use Facebook. A higher percentage of people stuck with the program, too.
Kailey Dwyer, who works for ConAgra in Omaha, said the Facebook group held her accountable. She logs in to the site daily so notifications kept her goals at the front of her mind.
And it's easier to access a Facebook page than attend weight-loss meetings.
“The convenience is huge,” she said. “I can log in at 1 in the morning. I can log in at 6 in the morning. Before, if your friends were a support group, you couldn't call them at midnight and say, 'I'm having problems with my portion control.' They wouldn't really appreciate that.”
Other national companies and their local branches in the health industry are reaching out to their base on social media, too. Aspen Athletic, with more than 2,400 “likes,” and 24 Hour Fitness on Cass Street, with 1,300, are two of the most popular Omaha gyms on Facebook. They remind followers about fitness classes, post inspiring quotes and introduce them to their staffs, among other things.
Crystal Olson, of Papillion, uses Facebook and My Fitness Pal, a social networking website that lets users track their eating and exercise habits and discuss their progress with other members.
In October, she created a “50-day challenge” group to lose 18 leftover pregnancy pounds in 50 days. More than 200 My Fitness Pal users joined her. Olson said the online support group keeps her on track.
Friends leave encouraging comments after she logs a spin class to her exercise diary, and when someone hasn't checked in lately, the group sends messages: “Come back! We miss you.”
“Social media is what has kept me motivated in my 'get rid of this baby weight' journey,” she said.
“Even at my fittest, for whatever reason, I'm not as motivated to do anything like that on my own.”
Darling, of Omaha, regularly uses Twitter and Foursquare, a smartphone application that shares your location with friends. The 36-year-old also uses it to hold other users accountable when they don't check in.
“If I'm not there in the morning, you need to call me out,” Brenda Reed tells him. She is a student-teacher at Dundee Elementary, where Darling teaches 4th grade.
“Working out is a big part of my life,” she said. “But to have that little push when it's cold or when you're really tired, that helps.”
Her competitive edge doesn't hurt either. “I want to be mayor,” she laughed.
The Foursquare “mayor” is the person who has visited a location most often in the last 60 days. Darling has held the title at 24 Hour Fitness, near 77th and Cass Streets in Omaha, for roughly two years, though he was ousted for a few months this summer after a trip to Florida. The gym is one of the most popular in Omaha, according to Foursquare, with nearly 12,000 check-ins.
“It's not so much about losing the mayorship,” he said. “A fictitious mayorship, does it really matter? Probably not. It shouldn't, (but) there is a matter of pride ... this is something that shows I put my work in.”
Darling was a regular gym-goer before social media dominated the Internet, but no one knew – and, more importantly, no one noticed if he slept in. “You didn't get up in the morning and call all your friends to tell them you're going to the gym,” he said. “Now, that's kind of what it is.”
Though research is still in its infancy, psychologist Stark believes people who actively post their health goals to social media sites are more likely to meet them than those who don't. Societal pressure – positive and negative – forces you to act.
“That's the power of social media,” he said.
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