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Sharing with Strangers or Friends?

14 Sep

There are lots of potential benefits to sharing your health status and achievements with other people. When we interviewed participants in online health communities, mostly from SparkPeople, they identified potential benefits of sharing including emotional support, acountability, motivation, advice, and showing off (though they didn’t call it that).

But wouldn’t these benefits be amplified if you shared with people you actually know, rather than with strangers? Maybe, but not necessarily.

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Online Forums Increase Participation in Walking Program

13 Sep

My wife, Dr. Caroline Richardson, has for many years been developing and testing an Internet-mediated walking program, called Stepping Up to Health, with various populations. Participants get an uploading pedometer and interact with a website that graphs progress, automatically increments daily walking goals as people become more fit, and provides personally tailored tips. It’s been pretty effective. But it’s been purely an individual activity: there was no interaction among participants. We wondered if some interpersonal interaction might make it even more effective.

We started just by adding online forums, without deep integration of social features. Remarkably, in a randomized controlled trial, we found that just the forums were enough to cause more people to stick with the program. In the arm of the trial with no online community, 66% of people completed the 16-week program (meaning they uploaded steps for 20 days in the last month). In the arm with an online community, 79% completed. In other words, about a third of those who would have been expected to drop out didn’t. Continue reading

Teams enhanced participation in ActiveU

12 Sep

The University of Michigan runs a physical activity promotion campaign every winter, called ActiveU. Faculty, staff, and graduate students can sign up, individually or in teams, and then self-report, through a web site, each physical activity episode.

We examined participation rates and found that those who participated as part of a team were 28% more likely to meet their self-set activity goals. That was after statistically controlling for factors like age, gender, BMI, and baseline activity levels. Details can be found in the journal article.

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Introduction: How Friends and Strangers Can Make Us Healthier

8 Sep

Q: What happens when Quantified Self meets Online Communities and Social Networks?

A: The people around us, both friends and strangers, make us healthier and happier.

It’s getting a lot easier to track our health-related states (weight, blood pressure, glucose, moods, disease symptoms, etc.) and our health-related behaviors (smoking, food intake, drugs and medications, exercise, sleep, etc.) Reflecting privately on our traces can help us make good judgments (e.g., deciding whether to exercise in the morning or at night to improve sleep?). Reflecting privately on our traces can also help us make behavior changes that are hard to stick with (e.g., eating less; stretching regularly).

Selectively sharing some of these traces can be even more powerful than reflecting on them individually. It can help us make better judgments about medicines and other treatments to try, by learning from other people’s experience instead of just our own. It can provide inspiration, accountability, support or reminders that enhance our personal behavior change efforts. And it can provide psychological support that reduces anxiety, relieves loneliness, and buoys spirits, thus directly enhancing well-being even without any changes in treatments or behaviors.

Not all sharing will have such positive effects, however, and that’s what makes this space so ripe for experimentation. There are lots of clever innovations out there that test different points in the design space, sending and receiving different kinds of information with different people.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing about this exciting space. I’ll start with summaries of a few projects that my colleagues and I have done, and then proceed to other people’s published research and examples of emerging products and services. I’ll be categorizing them by themes, including some of the keywords that I’ve highlighted in this post, and others that may emerge over time.

Please comment or email me with suggestions of products and services. I don’t mind getting multiple pointers to the same thing, so feel free to tell me about things you think I may already know about.