Social networking sites can help people lose weight, according to a new study.
For people who are obese, sites like Twitter and Facebook can be an inexpensive and convenient source of support from doctors as well as peers, researchers found.
"One advantage of using social media over other methods is that it offers the potential to be much more cost effective and practical for day-to-day use when compared to traditional approaches," the study's lead author, Dr. Hutan Ashrafian, a health policy researcher at Imperial College London, said in a university news release.
"The feeling of being part of a community allows patients to draw on the support of their peers as well as clinicians. They can get advice from their doctor without the inconvenience or cost of having to travel, and clinicians can provide advice to many patients simultaneously," Ashrafian, who is also a surgeon at the college, said.
The study's authors examined the results of 12 previous studies involving almost 1,900 people in the United States, Europe, east Asia and Australia. They found that the people who used social networking sites to lose weight had a modest but significant decrease in body mass index.
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"The use of social media to treat obesity encourages patients to be more pro-active and empowers them to contribute towards their own treatment. It's not the only solution to the obesity epidemic, but it should be introduced as an element of every country's obesity strategy." Ashrafian noted.
The study, written for the World Innovation Summit for Health and published in the Sept. 8 issue of Health Affairs, pointed out that social networking may not be a good option for all overweight people trying to lose weight.
"There are also possible downsides, such as potential privacy issues and a need for the patient to be Internet savvy, so it may not be right for everyone," Ashrafian explained.
"The studies we looked at were the first to investigate social media approaches to obesity. There needs to be more research into this area to see what approaches work best for which patients in light of the dramatic global adoption of social media tools and content," said Ashrafian.
Obesity is a global health issue, contributing to other chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and mental health issues.