Sharing exercise goals a two-edged sword

One of the most common recommendations for people who want to lose weight is to share their plan with family and friends. The theory is that being accountable to, and encouraged by, their social support system will increase dieters’ chances of reaching their goals.

Yet, when it comes to exercise, researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Washington have found that automatically posting results to Facebook can cut both ways. Participants in a 12-week walking program received an outpouring of encouragement from their social networks. The prospect that their goals or results would be posted, however, led fewer people to create weekly goals.

It is well-established that physical exercise can improve health and wellness and reduce obesity and mortality. However, only about 50% of U.S. adults report they achieve the recommended amount of aerobic activity and nearly 30% report no regular physical activity. This is despite the fact there are dozens of devices designed to motivate people to exercise, including tracking devices like conventional pedometers and electronic devices such as Fitbit.

The researchers set out to explore how technology–specifically social media and emails–might encourage people to make weekly commitments to walk more, and then keep those commitments.

They designed a pedometer-based 12-week walking program to test whether having participants post an announcement of their weekly fitness goal on social media would increase the likelihood of their achieving that goal. They also tested whether reporting the results, whether the goal was achieved or missed, would have any influence on the study participants.

Participants wore pedometers. At the beginning of each week, each participant had the opportunity to create a commitment: their number of physically active days the next week, as measured by a target number of steps. The target adjusted automatically, typically going up as people increased their endurance over the course of the study. For some participants, the commitments were automatically posted to Facebook. For others, they were kept private.

Surprisingly, people actually created fewer commitments when those commitments were made public. In the private condition, they created commitments 88% of the weeks, compared with 78% of the weeks when they were made public. According to the study “the prospect of accountability creates a selection effect that decreases the probability of making commitments.” The researchers theorize that people may be reluctant to set a goal publicly if there’s a chance of not meeting it.

The walkers whose commitments were posted publicly did receive a lot of commentary and encouragement, especially at the beginning of the program.

“It was heartwarming to see how many people offered emotional support, or even offers to walk together, watch kids, give rides, or let a friend borrow a dog, in response to people sharing their walking goals,” notes Sean Munson, one of the researchers. “Our application shared people’s goals along with a request for support. Compared to just a dry post with numbers and statistics, I think their friends knew better how to respond to that request, and I’d like to see more applications adopt this approach.”

Despite receiving this support, though, participants who shared goals did not reliably walk more than those who did not, perhaps because of their reduced willingness to create weekly commitments.

The researchers drew a number of conclusions based on their findings that may assist in the design of commitment-based health and wellness programs going forward. First, they suggest drawing on people’s enthusiasm when they first sign on to overcome any reticence about making public commitments. They also suggest that allowing participants to set their own daily targets rather than having them set automatically by the program might help reduce the fear of failure. Finally, they suggest that people should be encouraged to select a subset of their social network with whom to share results, and be allowed to customize their communications with their social network. In the study, these messages were scripted and delivered automatically to insure that they were sent.

The study was supported by funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and an Intel Fellowship. The study authors are Sean Munson (University of Washington), Erin Krupka and Paul Resnick (University of Michigan School of Information) and Caroline Richardson (University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine).

The paper will be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems on April 21, 2015 in Seoul, Korea.

Posted on April 14, 2015