Weight Loss 2015: How To Get A Little Help From Your (New) Friends

If you made your resolution to lose weight in 2015 on New Year's Eve, chances are you're already feeling your initial determination start to flag. The dreary winter dusk calls for comfort food, and there's slush between you and the gym.

So it's time for a little help from your friends — only, maybe they should include new friends, not just the usual posse. Not the network that may have influenced you to over-indulge in the first place.

Dr. Sherry Pagoto, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an obesity researcher, says studies show that social support is important for making lifestyle changes. "But just because you've decided to make a change, that doesn't mean your friends or family members have. So what do you do? The best support comes from people who are on the same journey." Social media lets you find people who are "exactly where you're at, have the same interests and can support each other."

"Maybe you don’t need everyone in your family to be as dedicated about the gym as you are," she adds. "But if you can post to your online community — 'I'm headed to the gym' or 'I just got back from the gym' or 'I'm on day 5 of my couch-to-5K' — you'll have someone who says, 'Yay!'"

Here, Dr. Pagoto offers five top tips for using social media to help with weight loss:

1. Create a private Facebook group for friends interested in losing weight.

How? It’s easy: Post on Facebook asking if anyone wants to join a private weight loss group. Then create a group page (private, not public) and send invites to those interested. Identify a day when people report weight change from the last week, and a day to post goals for the coming week. Ask people to post helpful content, recipes, their exercise plans, questions, struggles and more throughout the week.

2. Find an existing weight loss community, such as those on Sparkpeople, Weight Watchers or MyFitnessPal websites.

Many are free. Just be sure they are promoting healthy lifestyle change, not a particular specialized diet.

3. Most commercial weight loss apps allow you to ‘friend’ other users. Connect with other serious users to increase your social support and motivation.

Most mobile apps offer a "community" option, though people often don't know that. On some, you can find people you don't even know and friend them. They don't have to see your private information; they can see just 'Did Sherry finish her entries for the day?' Or you can compete on fitness with other people.

If you go on Twitter, you can find others who use the mobile app hashtag. Some apps have "auto-tweet" options and can automatically tweet when you've done your tracking for the day.

Tastes vary on this: Some people just need a 'Rah rah!' Others want 'tough love' — they say, 'This week I need to exercise five times and if I don't, please beat me up.' You may feel uncomfortable with putting yourself out there, but you can use a pseudonym and an avatar. You don't have to share any personal details, just whether you worked out today, or a great new recipe, or what your eating goals are for the week.

4. Hop on Twitter and engage with a healthy lifestyle community.

There are many out there. Find them via hashtags: #C25K is used by people working on a 'Couch to 5K' plan; #fitfluential, #crossfit, #girlsgonesporty, #fitbloggin, #weightwatchers, #vegan and #plankaday are popular healthy lifestyle hashtags. Follow users of those hashtags to build your community; then engage with them. Cheer people on and they will do the same.

Also search for health-care professionals tweeting good info about healthy lifestyle. Good ones include yours truly, if I may say so — @drsherrypagoto — and @yonifreedhoff, @drdavidkatz, @drsharma, @joybauer, @ellie_krieger and @deanornishMD.

Be patient with Twitter. Getting started on it can be slow, but stick with it, it will snowball over time. You don’t know anyone at first and it can be very overwhelming. In studies we've done in which we had people use Twitter, they told us it takes a little while before people start to interact, but if you're proactive you can get that ball rolling more quickly. You really need to home in on your community with hashtags and searches.

One nice thing about Twitter as opposed to Facebook: there's a big fitness community and you can find very specific interests. Say you're a breast cancer survivor and you're trying to get healthy; you might not have anyone on Facebook who can relate to that, but if you search #bcsm you'll find this whole world of people — patients, advocates, family members, physicians, health care professionals — all of whom are connecting on this topic of breast cancer and voila, you can join this community.

5. Don't feel like you have to connect only with people you already know, especially if you don't know many people interested in getting healthy.

Keep in mind that the power of online social networks is the potential to connect with people with similar interests and goals. Your best weight loss buddy might be across the country.

It's important for people to know that on Twitter and with mobile apps, it's not weird or creepy to friend strangers. If someone I don't know tweeted me and said 'Great job on your plank!' I wouldn't think, 'Are they a stalker?' Some people feel uncomfortable because they're used to Facebook, where you do not typically interact with strangers, but that's how Twitter works.

People also use social media to collect or archive information that's helpful — recipes or training plans, motivating articles. And social media also lets you go back and visit your previous posts, almost like a journal. So when your motivation is down in the dumps, you can look back at what you were posting when you were on the top of the world.

Readers, lingering questions about social media and weight loss? Recommendations? Warnings? 

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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