Mobile social networking, self-monitoring, and health behaviour change

This week features a guest post by Richard, an undergraduate student working in the CDSM lab for the summer. His main project for the summer has been working on identifying iPhone apps that promise to help with weight management and developing a tool to assess these apps with. He explores the possibility of utilizing social networking apps that combine self-monitoring and competition to help individual change health-related behaviours, such as exercise.

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Since the emergence and subsequent enormous growth of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, there has been a slow but steady increase in the use of such sites for things other than just posting on a wall, creating an event, or re-tweeting a message that one might find inspiring, logical, or just plain funny.  The increase in smartphone usage has now brought all of this social networking to a mobile level, and this expansion in mobile social networking has been identified by Craig Lefebvre as a tool for public health practice (1).  Lefebvre sees mobile networking as an opportunity to target specific demographic groups in order to dispense information or recommendations about health practices in a manner that is appropriate for that group.  These methods may include text messaging, multimedia (video or picture) messaging, or even email updates (1).

I believe that while having external groups dispensing information, it can be just as useful in a health promotion context to have information sent from the individual to the social network.  While working on my current project with Penny, we came across a grouping of apps called GymFu (2).  There are a total of four apps in this group, called PushupFu, PullupFu, SquatFu, and CrunchFu.  These apps use motion sensing to detect reps and give a general indication to an individual if they are properly completing their particular exercise (2).

Each app has a similar premise, to make improving reps easier by including a digital personal trainer, challenges, and battles between users.  Results of these improvements, challenges, and battles are then posted to Twitter which leads to that individual’s followers essentially becoming a support network in their fitness endeavours (2).  This can also expand to challenge and push individuals, as they can then find competitors at a similar level to continue to battle in their quest for more reps.

The competition inherent in these apps complements what has already been established in the literature: self-monitoring is an effective method of behaviour change both in and of itself, and when partnered with other techniques (3). The role of self-monitoring has been found to be helpful in the weight maintenance of National Weight Control Registry members and other weight loss maintainers (4), which suggests that apps such as this one could be both perceived and used as a feedback system not just for gaining strength, but also losing weight.

The concept of a multi-purpose app which provides feedback and enhances social support is an interesting one.  Will it serve its intended purpose in the long run?  Will these muscle builders continue to improve?  What happens when they are no longer able to develop at their previous rates and they perceive that they are no longer making progress?  Would the social support encourage them to continue despite what may be perceived as disappointing results?  Apps have been explored as feedback systems before, as Penny mentioned in her blog about quitting smoking, but I would be interested in seeing what long term impact they, and other social networking tools, might have on public health.

(1)  ResearchBlogging.org  Lefebvre C (2009). Integrating cell phones and mobile technologies into public health practice: a social marketing perspective. Health promotion practice, 10 (4), 490-4 PMID: 19809002

(2)    http://www.gymfu.com/

(3)   Hardeman, W., Griffin, S., Johnston, M., Kinmonth, A. L., & Wareham, N. J. (2000). Interventions to prevent weight gain: a systematic review of psychological models and behaviour change methods. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 24(2), 131-43. Retrieved May 31, 2011, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10702762.

(4)   Catenacci, V. A., Ogden, L. G., Stuht, J., Phelan, S., Wing, R. R., Hill, J. O., et al. (2008). Physical activity patterns in the National Weight Control Registry. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 16(1), 153-61. Retrieved May 18, 2011, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18223628.

Image from Flickr user Webtreats

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