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Online interaction proves to be powerful in weight loss

Sunday, November 4, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:17 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 4, 2012
Fitness websites and mobile applications provide new platforms for people to discuss recipes, monitor diet choices and track physical activity.

COLUMBIA — On Jan. 6 of this year, Steven Smith, 31, a user support analyst in the MU Office of Research, seriously considered suicide. 

Smith, who weighed 377 pounds at the time, couldn't shop at the mall because none of the stores had clothes that fit him. Growing up a "big guy," he had become accustomed to being made fun of and feeling like an outcast. 

One day, Smith overheard a child talking about him in the line at Subway. "Look, there's a fat guy," he heard the child say to his mother. His long-buried frustration bubbled to the surface and destroyed his last strand of self-esteem.  

"When you are so good at masking your emotions, you put a shield up," he said. "But still one little comment can get you."

The next day, Smith started dieting, and he lost 70 pounds in seven months. He credits fitness websites and mobile apps for his weight loss success.

Fitness websites like MyFitnessPal.com and CalorieCount.com provide an online platform for people to discuss recipes, diet choices, physical activities, doubts, struggles and strides in their weight loss journey. Users post likes, comment on others' journals or statuses, become supporters and send each other encouraging emails. 

Through these online interactions, people become accountable to their supporters and to themselves.

Uploading personal pictures, setting goals and disclosing weight regularly in public are ways for people to hold themselves accountable to their audience, said Kerry Chamberlain, a professor at the School of Psychology at Massey University in New Zealand. He co-authored the 2011 study "Blogging for weight loss: personal accountability, writing selves, and the weight-loss blogosphere."

Smith recorded his progress and reflections on his Facebook page the New ME Journey, which attracted hundreds of followers. Smith likes that his story is out there and that he's helping people feel they are not alone.

Smith gets messages every day from people who are inspired by him. Becky Rogers from Harrison Township, Mich., is one of them. She told Smith that his story completely changed her life and taught her that everything is possible.

Smith gets motivation out of it: "If I quit, I'm letting them down, too."

A growing market

CalorieCount.com was launched in 2004,  with the iPhone and iPad app released in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Now the website has 5 million users, said Igor Lebovic, vice president and co-founder of CalorieCount.com.

MyFitnessPal.com reached 30 million users in October, according to a press release.

Diet websites are expected to score a double-digit growth in online revenues this year, according to the Diet Market 2012 Forecasts from research firm Marketdata Enterprises. The market was estimated to reach $1.05 billion in 2011, and it is forecasted to hit $1.11 billion in 2012.

The demand for diet websites might continue to grow. The percentage of adult Americans who are overweight and obese is expected to reach 75 percent in 2015, according to a market research report from IBISWorld.

Most fitness websites offer free access to services such as nutrition and diet information and online forums, and charge membership fees for services such as food supplements, nutritionist advice and personalized weight-loss plans.

Most mobile apps are free to download. Some charge for access and for additional services. 

Facts and feelings

Tammy Hickman, 51, supervisor of outpatient services at Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at MU takes full advantage of fitness websites and mobile fitness apps.

Hickman gained 50 pounds during her pregnancy at age 26. Her weight kept creeping up and peaked at 247 pounds in 2010. At 5 feet and 4 inches tall, that pushed her body mass index to 42.4 and placed her in the category of morbidly obese, according to the Stanford Hospital & Clinics BMI calculator. She was taking two blood pressure medications and couldn't walk or stand for long periods of time because of the strain on her feet and knees.

Worst of all, she had gastroesophageal reflux disease and experienced a severe episode after a heavy meal.

"I was choking,"Hickman said. "It was pretty scary; I thought I was dying."

On top of the medical issues, Hickman was experiencing social distress. 

"I can remember being really uncomfortable when I had to take a flight," Hickman said. "Or going on a carnival ride, tried to get buckled into a seat, when somebody is trying to help you."

Hickman first tried to lose weight by eating less around seven years ago. She lost 40 pounds, but gained it all back promptly.

The second time around, she was more determined and had a different attitude toward dieting — she saw it as a trade-off instead of giving up options. She largely attributed her success — she lost 100 pounds in 14 months — to fitness websites and mobile apps.

CalorieCount.com, the website Hickman used, allowed her to log in daily food and water intake as well as physical activities, keep track of her diet, calculate calorie consumption and make adjustments accordingly. For example, she learned about the hidden calories in foods, and keeping track of everything she ate showed her how those calories added up.

The online forum is an opportunity for Hickman to see "other regular people" trying different things and sharing motivational stories.

"One of the most important things in support groups is that no one understands the challenges and reasons better than someone who tried to accomplish the same goal," said Donna Arnlund, a Weight Watchers meeting leader in Columbia since 1999.

Lose like a man

For men, whose weight struggles are less openly discussed than women's, cyber-sphere interaction and electronic tools have a special appeal:  they suit the needs of those who don't feel comfortable discussing weight loss out loud. 

For Smith, a technology guy, online conversation and mobile apps are easy to use and convenient.

Weight Watchers specifically provides online programs customized for men. NBA Hall of Famer and current analyst Charles Barkley, also the spokesperson for Weight Watchers, is part of the effort to appeal to male members to "lose like a man."

"Men have a hard time admitting they can't do it alone," Smith said. "It makes them feel they're giving up control."

Personal choice

Online platforms aren't for everybody.

Charles Presberg, a professor of Spanish literature at MU, uses online weight loss tools only as a supplement — not a substitute — for face-to-face interaction.

Presberg has continued to attend meetings at Weight Watchers since last October when he started dieting. He didn't miss a single meeting.

For Presberg, there's nothing like a live meeting, where you can see people and enjoy their company.

"You are interacting with real people in real time. If you are chatting online, first of all, you will have to use a keyboard. It's much slower, much more tedious," Presberg said. "Online isn't even close to what you can achieve in a meeting."

Presberg agrees that online platforms are more flexible and convenient for people who have a tight schedule, but "it's not social interaction to the same degree," he said. "It just isn't for me."

As for Hickman, she's on her way of trying something new online — dating.


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