For better or worse, social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are an indelible feature of modern life. A research team of professors and students at Penn State’s College of Medicine is trying to create a tool that can help scientists determine how to prompt social media users to live a healthier lifestyle.
Using previously published data on social networks and other online environments that promote physical activity, the Penn State team is figuring out how to use these platforms to influence people to get up from their computer monitors, tablets and smartphones in order to do something for their physical well-being.
In the case of the Penn State initiative, the “something” they want people to “do” is walk—thus the name, Project WalkLink. The project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is led by Liza Rovniak, assistant professor of medicine and public health sciences. Their report was published by BioMedCentral Public Health.
“Although social media can bring attention to the important issue of physical inactivity, many people are already aware that they are not sufficiently active,” Rovniak said. “It is a challenge for many people to sustain an active lifestyle given that there are more prompts for sedentary behaviors than for active ones. Therefore, our primary purpose was to study if helping people to build a network of physical activity partners could help sustain more regular physical activity.”
“The question becomes, ‘What can we manipulate in our physical or virtual environments to change what people say or do to encourage healthy behavior?’” she added.
To do this, the research team has developed three different social media prompts for separate groups within a population of more than 300 relatively sedentary adults. Each prompt requiries a different level of participation on their part. In one case, a group was offered only tips on how to be more physically active, while in another there was a reward for physical activity. The third group was offered the chance to “mingle” with others on social networking sites to discuss their new physical activities.
The intended takeaway from Project WalkLink will be that scientists will better understand what’s effective for promoting exercise on social media platforms, and how those methods compare to more conventional approaches.
Once they can properly track what works, scientists can begin to test other variables that will influence and increase physical activity among social media users.
“We attempted to help people build this network by providing opportunities for them to connect to other potential walking partners on Facebook, and by encouraging them to participate in physical-activity events and groups in their communities, where they would have opportunities to meet other active people,” Rovniak said. “Our program emphasized walking because it is a moderate-intensity activity that most people can do. But we also encouraged participants to cross-train to achieve a well-rounded fitness routine.”