This article appears in Healthy Living Winter 2018.

Sticking to your weight loss goal is hard, but here’s a trick to make it easier — snap a selfie and share it.

A recent study from American University in Washington, D.C., finds that sharing intimate information and photos about weight loss goals online can help motivate individuals to reach their goals. Consider it part of the #fitspo — or “fitness inspiration” — trend.

About the study

The study tracked two communities of weight-loss groups, surgical and non-surgical, over a four-year period. They found that participation and sharing of successes and setbacks in virtual support communities is a key part of achieving goals.

“We explored how individuals engage with one another — in what we term ‘virtual support communities’ — to share details and receive encouragement as they pursue health and fitness goals,” said Tonya Williams Bradford, lead author of the study and assistant professor, School of Business, University of California Irvine. “This often involves them sharing daily or weekly, something they view as an investment and not a time waste. We find that the time and effort invested has the potential to result in life-affirming outcomes.”

By making public commitments to goals, individuals are more apt to feel an accountability not only to themselves but to the group, said Sonya A. Grier, professor of marketing in the American University Kogod School of Business.

“Public commitment is found in person-to-person support groups, however it had not been examined in online communities. We sought to explain under what conditions could virtual presence lead to similar results,” she said.

Find like minds

Rather than randomly sharing before and after photos online, a critical component to success was to find the relevant community for the goals you seek to achieve, researchers found.

“If you are an avid gardener of vegetables it is best to join with other vegetable — versus flower — gardeners. Likewise, if you are working to lose weight, it is best to find a group using the weight loss approach you are versus one that is focused on another approach. And, it seems like transparency helps in the development of relationships within these communities, which is more likely to support public commitment,” Bradford said.

Sharing fitness goals online allows for relative anonymity. It allows people the flexibility in how they represent themselves on their journeys.

“The process of building community, even in relative anonymity, helps with keeping participants motivated and accountable,” Bradford said.

“Not everyone can get the support they need from the people they interact with in person on a daily basis. It is helpful that technology can support community-building and goal achievement in virtual spaces,” Grier said.