WPC Research
“Higher levels of self-efficacy mean people feel empowered in their weight-management capabilities.”
Tongxin Zhou, Assistant Professor of Information Systems typography
“Higher levels of self-efficacy mean people feel empowered in their weight-management capabilities.”

What works with online weight-management platforms


ccording to the Centers for Disease Control, some 42% of people in the U.S. were at an unhealthy weight in 2018. “Weight management is one of the most popular topics in many online health care communities,” says Tongxin Zhou, assistant professor of information systems. It’s also lucrative, the reason countless online platforms exist to help people who diet find information and digitally track weight-management efforts.

Which activities help site users the most? Zhou and her colleagues, Lu Yan at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and Yingfei Wang and Yong Tan at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, conducted research using data from an online weight-management platform and found that people who are successful at dieting do more than track what they weigh. They also pay attention to the activities that make weight management possible.

On the record

“Health management involves a lot of behavior change,” Zhou says. “If you think about how people achieve weight loss, they often need to record their calorie intake and expenditures and put restrictions on their routines.”

Making such changes requires self-efficacy, a belief in your ability to take the steps that shed the pounds. As Zhou and her colleagues noted in a write-up of their study, people often quit keeping that food diary and tracking exercise routines.

“Monitoring weight loss is much easier than monitoring your weight loss behaviors because you can just step on a scale and read the numbers,” she explains. “When monitoring behavioral routines, you put in a lot of details showing what you did and ate daily. People often neglect that aspect.”

It has been neglected by researchers, too, Zhou says. Previous studies of what works in online weight-loss platforms didn’t simultaneously examine both behaviors that affect weight management efforts: tracking weight and weight-loss activities.

Zhou and her colleagues looked at both behaviors. “We found that individuals who participate in both types of monitoring activities have higher self-efficacy levels,” she says. “Higher levels of self-efficacy mean people feel empowered in their weight-management capabilities. They are more motivated to maintain weight-loss activities.”

Along with looking at both types of monitoring behaviors that people who diet may follow, Zhou and her colleagues also looked at the timing of those behaviors. For instance, they examined inconsistent weigh-in activity in which a person who is dieting weighed multiple times in one day but not at all for several days afterward. This, too, differs from previous research, in which scholars looked only at the total number of weigh-ins a person achieved in a given period. Adding in that time-based component, Zhou’s research showed that maintaining a steady weigh-in cadence leads to better self-efficacy.

Doing your level best

Participation in social media opportunities associated with online weight-loss platforms leads to better self-efficacy, too, but the researchers found it sometimes depends on how much self-efficacy someone has going into the program. For example, Zhou’s study suggests that users with low self-efficacy benefit from emotional support received from others online, but those with high self-efficacy can be negatively affected.

Posting on the social media platform associated with the weight-management site also affects dieters. The research team found dieters in a high state of self-efficacy tend to stay in a good space longer when they participate in social activities online, while dieters in a low self-efficacy state may transition to a medium level more quickly.

However, the study also found that social media components of online weight-loss platforms have similar pitfalls to social media in general. “On one hand, if you receive support from others, it may improve your mental well-being,” Zhou says. “On the other hand, if you observe others doing a great job and you’re not, there will be some negative feelings.”

— Betsy Loeff