Commentary

Exercise Is 'Contagious' On Social Networks

While it’s easy to focus on the negative psychological impacts of social media (I seem to revel in it) there’s no denying its huge potential for good, including encouraging people to adopt healthier lifestyles with the support of their peers.

This week brings some of the most dramatic evidence yet, via a study published in Nature, showing that exercise – specifically running – is “contagious” across online social networks.

The study by researchers at MIT Sloan School of Management analyzed the daily exercise habits of 1.1 million people who participated in an exercise-focused global network, which allows individuals to see how much their connections have exercised.

The analysis took into account “exogenous” variables like weather patterns, which influence exercise patterns by region, and was limited to people on the network who ran at least 350 kilometers over the course of five years (that works out to an average of around 1.3 kilometers per week).

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The analysis showed that individuals exercised more when the connections in their online social network also exercised more.

Furthermore, the researchers discovered that the social spread of exercise habits shows an asymmetrical variation based on gender: male users were influenced by the exercise habits of both male and female connections, but women were only influenced by other women.

The MIT study echoes some other recent findings about the impact of social networks one exercise habits.

Last month I wrote about the results of a study, funded in part by the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub initiative, which analyzed data from the Argus fitness app documenting the exercise habits of more than six million Argus users, including activity level and heart rate information, for a total of 791 million discrete activities.

Comparing exercise data from these two groups, the researchers found that users who joined the social network increased their daily physical activity by an average of around 7%, or 400 steps, per day compared to users who didn’t join the social network.

Like the MIT study, they also discovered some gender-based variations: for example, female Argus users increased the daily exercise regimens by an average of 52% more when paired with another female user than with a male user.

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