Shrink

The psychology of weight loss.

Can Behavior Change Go Viral?

A case study of the health hashtag adopted by thousands

#PlankADay is a hashtag that started with a single tweet on Twitter and spread to thousands of users.  For those unfamiliar with Twitter, a hashtag is a way to tag a tweet so that similar tweets can be followed in a stream. I started #PlankADay with a friend (Mike Bauman, @mbfgmike on Twitter) as a way for us to start simple and be more accountable on our ab workout (i.e., one plank per day). A plank is an ab exercise that benefits several muscle groups in your body’s core. Whenever one of us would miss a day, we would pretend to be the "Plank Police" and tweet a reminder. Over time, a community of more than 7,000 people formed around this exercise challenge, all who wanted to join in our mission.  All from a single tweet. Here is more on #plankaday and how to join.

Some guy asked me the other day, “Is #plankaday your job?” and I had to giggle.  I’ve been a university professor for 10 years (and spent 10 years in school to get there) and people are more likely to have heard about an ab craze I started on Twitter than any of the many works I’ve so carefully detailed on my CV.

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I have benefited in many ways from #plankaday but none involve money.  I developed some halfway decent abs, improved my posture, made friends, and had a ton of fun.  Most importantly, the experience has inspired new directions in my research—I realized that online social networking is a conduit for health behavior change.  About a month or two into #plankaday I sensed that something unusual was happening, something I wanted to study.  Who is participating?  How many times has #plankaday been tweeted?   How is this spreading?  What are people getting out of it?  Why do people enjoy tweeting about their exercise?  I submitted an application to my Human Subjects Review Board asking permission to study this.  I’m quite sure I had them scratching their heads as I attempted to describe the “plankpolice.”  Nonetheless they gave me the green light.

The paper* is now in press at the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.  Let me tell you what I found in my research.

Who is participating?  Plankers who filled out my survey (n=105) were largely female (81%) and on average about 36 years old.  The average planker had a BMI of about 25, with 54% being lean, 34% overweight, and 7% obese.  Only about 25% reported to have been doing ab exercise regularly before joining #plankaday, but 73% said they do some form of exercise 3+ times per week. This means that our plankers are a pretty active bunch relative to the general population.  I would love to explore ways to engage less active folks into #plankaday since planking is such a simple exercise and perhaps a great way to get started being active.  One planker told us that he grew a bigger exercise program out of the momentum he got from #plankaday.  Small changes can be a great place to start.

How many times has #plankday been tweeted? We examined the first 14 months of #plankaday and in that time, 4,941 users produced 76,746 tweets with the #PlankADay hashtag and the mean total tweets per user was 15.86 (range= 1-2,888).  Today we are 21 months from the first #plankaday tweet and we have a total of 7,229 users!  Let’s keep them coming!

How is this spreading?  I was curious how people heard of #plankaday because when it started, my friend and I didn’t have many Twitter followers, having only been on Twitter for 3 months.  Confirming our hunch that we are neither famous nor influential, only 18% had heard about #plankaday from one of us. The majority heard about it from another #plankaday participant. About 17% heard about it from somewhere other than Twitter (e.g., blogs, Facebook, magazine/radio, a friend).

We were intrigued to find that the majority of participants (68%) said they actively encouraged someone else to join #plankaday. And, most were successful: 66% recruited 1-5 new users to join, 6% recruited 10 or more new users, but 28% could not get one single lazy friend to join!  Still, not bad.  Keep recruiting folks!  Uncomfortable ab exercise loves company.

What are people getting out of it?  We were pleased to find that people said that #plankaday significantly improved their enjoyment of ab exercise, p < .001.  What exactly did people find motivating about #plankaday?  Well, 88% felt that tweeting their planks improved their motivation, 85% felt that the @PlankPolice (an account that will tweet anyone who misses 2 days in a row) tweets improved their motivation, and 82% felt that having other people respond to their plank tweets improved their motivation.

Why do people enjoy tweeting about their exercise so much?  We asked plankers what they liked most about participating and 43% cited accountability (e.g., reminders from the @PlankPolice), 26% specified the social component, 12% said increased motivation, 10% said fun, and only 4% said stronger abdominal muscles!  I was fascinated by these numbers because accountability and the social experience outweighed the actual purpose of the exercise, i.e., stronger abs.

Why do people experience such a social benefit from interacting with people they don’t even know?   We asked people how much positive and negative social influence they get about exercise from their Twitter friends, their “in person” friends, and their family. Positive social influence is when someone supports your exercise (e.g., cheering you on), whereas negative social influence is when someone criticizes or hassles you about your exercise. Plankers rated Twitter friends, in-person friends and family similarly in positive social influence. This is surprising because Twitter friends are weighing in as just as influential as our BFFs and family members.  Perhaps even more interesting is that Twitter friends were judged as significantly less negative than both family and in-person friends. Bottom line: If you want to be criticized, go home because you won’t find it on Twitter.

If you want to read more about the results of our #plankaday study, contact me for the details.

The #plankaday community continues to grow every day and it really has been a fun experience-turned-experiment. We also learned a little bit about the value of each other as we attempt to improve our lives in little ways.

So hey random guy who wondered if #plankaday is my job. Yeah, it sort of is.  My job is to study human behavior, to figure out what motivates us to do a thing or not.  Social influence is powerful. Online social networking has introduced an entirely new medium for social influence. The next step is to figure out how to harness this power so we can facilitate behavior change in ways that we never before imagined.

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*Pagoto SL, Schneider KL, Smith BN, & Bauman M. (in press).  The adoption and spread of a core-strengthening exercise through an online social network.  Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

 

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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