Why Weight Loss Is a Social Activity

Whether it’s a little competition or a lot of social support, research shows people are more successful at achieving health goals when they’re part of a group.
Why Weight Loss Is a Social Activity

Greatist News examines and explains the trends and studies making headlines in fitness, health, and happiness. Check out all the news here.

I’m doing this for me” is a powerful mantra, but individuality isn’t always a help when it comes to weight loss. According to new research, people are much more successful at losing weight when they’re part of a group.

One study found groups of people given financial incentives lost more weight than individuals with the same goals. In another study, coworkers helped keep each other on track to shed a few pounds Lifestyle intervention reduces body weight and improves cardiometabolic risk factors in worksites. Salinardi, T.C., Batra, P., Roberts, S.B., et al. Jearn Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston, MA. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013 Aprl97(4):667-76.. Together, these studies add to an already impressive amount of data suggesting health and fitness could be a more social endeavor.

What’s the Deal?

In one study, researchers recruited overweight and obese employees at four different companies (they worked in insurance, loan companies, or for non-profits) Lifestyle intervention reduces body weight and improves cardiometabolic risk factors in worksites. Salinardi, T.C., Batra, P., Roberts, S.B., et al. Jearn Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston, MA. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2013 Aprl97(4):667-76.. Workers at two of the companies participated in group sessions on nutrition and behavior modification and were instructed to follow a low-calorie diet. Workers at the other two companies did not receive any intervention and followed their typical health routine. Results showed employees who participated in the interventions lost significantly more weight than those who didn’t. Moreover, employees at the companies where the intervention was held who didn’t take part in the intervention also lost weight.

The study authors say the key to sticking with the program was teamwork among coworkers. (The low-calorie diet probably helped, too.) Other recent research supports the idea that groups — especially in the workplace — are a powerful motivator when it comes to losing and maintaining weight Combining behavioral weight loss treatment and a commercial program: A randomized clinical trial. Pinto, A.M., Fava, J.L., Hoffman, D.A., et al. Psychology Department, Baruch College, CUNY, New York, NY. Obesity 2012 Oct 8. Who succeeds in maintaining weight loss? A conceptual review of factors associated with weight loss maintenance and weight regain. Elfhag, K., Rossner, S. Obesity Unit, Karolinksa University Hospital Huddinge, Stockholm, Sweden. Obesity Review 2005 Feb;6(1):67-85..

A more recent study divided participants into three groups. One group received a link to an online weight loss network and reminders about monthly weigh-ins; another group received the same information plus the opportunity to earn $100 each month if they met their monthly weight goal. The third group was divided into smaller groups of five anonymous people, and whichever group members met their monthly weight goal could split $500 between them. Turns out the participants in the group-based strategy lost a lot more weight than participants in either of the other sections.

The researchers behind the second study say participants in the group strategy probably figured they’d be able to lose weight while others would fall prey to the siren call of the pizza joint down the block. The possibility of doing better than someone else can be a huge motivating factor, and other research suggests we work out harder when exercising with someone who’s slightly fitter than we are.

Why It Matters

These studies suggest that it doesn’t matter whether we’re competing or working together: Health and fitness are social activities. Adding social components to health and fitness goals can significantly boost success rate.

Of course, anyone who successfully loses or gains weight, lowers his/her cholesterol, or runs a 5K for the first time knows the personal satisfaction that comes with achieving a health goal. But all this research suggests that patting ourselves on the back might not mean as much if it's solo. Maybe, in the end, we just want to be recognized for our efforts, even if it’s by someone who ran faster or ate less cake than we did. It never hurts, after all, to know someone cares.

Do you find it’s easier to achieve your health goals when you’re part of a group? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.

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