Social networks may boost fitness, Stanford researchers say

Your online social network doesn’t just keep you connected, it can also help you stay fit, a new study shows.

A team of researchers led by Jure Leskovec, PhD, (who recently was named a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator) an Stanford associate professor of computer science, have shown that participating in a social network on a health app can boost physical activity.

The team tapped data from the Argus app — which tracks heart rate, steps and daily exercise — from 6 million app users over five years. The app gives users a choice whether to join a social network, allowing them to share data, or to simply track their progress.

The researchers showed that users who joined the social network saw a 7 percent (around 400 steps) increase in physical activity, an effect that lasted for around 20 weeks.

“We were able to show that network connections influence us to be more active and that social network users are not simply more intrinsically motivated to exercise,” said team member Tim Althoff, a graduate student, in a recent Stanford Engineering news article.

Demographics do play a role, however: The researchers found that women were most influenced by other women and that 30 to 45 year olds had the biggest boost in physical activity. The social networking component also proved beneficial for users characterized as obese.

The impact of this research extends beyond exercise, the study authors said. These findings can also be used to design effective support systems to promote healthy lifestyles. “Online social networks are a powerful tool to provide social support and influence healthy behaviors,” Leskovec said in the release.

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