Altan Alpay bought a high-tech scale last spring to help him meet his weight-loss goals. Every time the San Francisco software engineer weighs himself, the scale beams his weight to a password-protected website, where he can track his progress. But as he set up his scale, Alpay accidentally activated a feature that also posts his weight and his goal on his Facebook page.
Embarrassing, right? Alpay had been overweight for nearly a decade and didn't feel that his 5-foot-11, 220-pound physique was anything to brag about on Facebook. By the time he realized his error, though, a funny thing had started to happen: Friends were posting words of encouragement on his Facebook wall.
"Those comments were very influential," Alpay says. So he left the Facebook feature on his scale turned on, and even started posting the updates to his public Twitter feed, where the entire world could see them. Alpay went on to lose about 40 pounds over the course of eight or nine months. He didn't lose weight by posting to social media. He lost it by watching what he ate and walking up to 90 minutes a day. But Alpay says the support he got from friends and strangers via social media helped him stick to his healthy habits.
Social media are becoming a source of motivation, encouragement and accountability for more and more people as they try to get fit. And there are a growing number of apps and tools to support these users, from activity logs to calorie counters.
If Ben Jimenez goes too long without tweeting about a workout, the Napa Valley technical writer says he's likely to hear from a friend wondering where he's been. "It helps me stay focused," Jimenez says. The same could happen if he makes unhealthy food choices. Jimenez keeps a food and calorie diary using a service called Tweet What You Eat, which involves doing precisely that. (As the TWYE website says, everyone can see what you've "recently tweaten.")
Communities of people who have a fitness activity in common are using Twitter hashtags to organize and come together, from #30DayShred to #30DaysofBiking (the former is used by fans of the Jillian Michaels "Shred" workout videos; the latter is for a campaign that encourages bicycle riding every day for a month.)
For Dave Walker, a New York family physician, using social media in fitness is about inspiring others. He uses Twitter and a social fitness tracker called RunKeeper to share his workout summaries. Walker says, "As a doctor, I think exercise is extremely important for health, and I want to try to set an example for people."
Walker's tweets are no doubt flying through the Twittersphere unnoticed by many. But enough people are tuning in to social media to make these tech tools a potential help for anyone trying to lose weight or keep up a fitness routine.
Ken Cheng, a San Francisco nurse who blogs and tweets about his weight-loss progress, says he gets five to 10 messages a day from people, mostly strangers, cheering him toward his goal of losing more than 50 pounds.
"It's given me a good routine generic viagra soft and made me more accountable," says Cheng, who spent hundreds of hours at the gym between June and November and lost 40 pounds. "It's just a great feeling."