A social media-based physical activity intervention: a randomized controlled trial

David N Cavallo, Deborah F Tate, Amy V Ries, Jane D Brown, Robert F DeVellis, Alice S Ammerman
American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2012, 43 (5): 527-32

BACKGROUND: Online social networks, such as Facebook™, have extensive reach, and they use technology that could enhance social support, an established determinant of physical activity. This combination of reach and functionality makes online social networks a promising intervention platform for increasing physical activity.

PURPOSE: To test the efficacy of a physical activity intervention that combined education, physical activity monitoring, and online social networking to increase social support for physical activity compared to an education-only control.

DESIGN: RCT. Students (n=134) were randomized to two groups: education-only controls receiving access to a physical activity-focused website (n=67) and intervention participants receiving access to the same website with physical activity self-monitoring and enrollment in a Facebook group (n=67). Recruitment and data collection occurred in 2010 and 2011; data analyses were performed in 2011.

SETTING/PARTICIPANTS: Female undergraduate students at a large southeastern public university.

INTERVENTION: Intervention participants were encouraged through e-mails, website instructions, and moderator communications to solicit and provide social support related to increasing physical activity through a physical activity-themed Facebook group. Participants received access to a dedicated website with educational materials and a physical activity self-monitoring tool.

MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: The primary outcome was perceived social support for physical activity; secondary outcomes included self-reported physical activity.

RESULTS: Participants experienced increases in social support and physical activity over time but there were no differences in perceived social support or physical activity between groups over time. Facebook participants posted 259 times to the group. Two thirds (66%) of intervention participants completing a post-study survey indicated that they would recommend the program to friends.

CONCLUSIONS: Use of an online social networking group plus self-monitoring did not produce greater perceptions of social support or physical activity as compared to education-only controls. Given their promising features and potential reach, efforts to further understand how online social networks can be used in health promotion should be pursued.

TRIAL REGISTRATION: This study is registered at clinicaltrials.govNCT01421758.

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