Ben Darling

Ben Darling's alarm screams to life at 4:45 a.m. By 5:15, he's done with breakfast and en route to a 24 Hour Fitness in Omaha. Every day before work. Just ask his Twitter followers.

Darling is part of a growing group of Americans using social media to hold themselves accountable to health goals. Friends and followers can track his progress and inspire him to go to the gym or skip dessert when his motivation is running low.

Social media can be an effective tool in shaping behavior, said local sports psychologist Jack Stark. It might play a key role in reversing the obesity problem in the U.S.

More than half of Americans are overweight or obese, and four in five adults do not meet national exercise guidelines, according to a 2011 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many gyms and health industry businesses use social media, too. Aspen Athletic Nebraska, with nearly 3,000 “likes,” and 24 Hour Fitness on Cass Street, with almost 1,400, are two of the most popular Omaha gyms on Facebook. They remind followers about fitness classes, post inspiring quotes and introduce staff members.

“We know from research that the solution is reinforcement,” Stark said. “So we turn to Twitter, we turn to Facebook, we turn to cell phones, and we get a lot of reinforcement. We get immediate feedback. It's a powerful thing.”

Kasia Burton, a ConAgra dietitian in Illinois, has successfully incorporated Facebook into the company's weight loss program.

“The idea was to be able to offer a platform where participants could ask questions, share weight-loss success stories and hopefully motivate others to stay on the program,” she said.

Kailey Dwyer

It worked. Those who joined the Facebook group lost nearly twice the weight over four weeks, on average, than those who did not use Facebook. A higher percentage of people stuck with the program, too.

Kailey Dwyer, who works for ConAgra in Omaha, said the Facebook group held her accountable. Daily notifications from the group kept her goals at the front of her mind.

“The convenience is huge,” she said. “I can log in at 1 in the morning. I can log in at 6 in the morning. Before, if your friends were a support group, you couldn't call them at midnight and say, 'I'm having problems with my portion control.' They wouldn't appreciate that.”

Crystal Olson of Papillion uses Facebook and My Fitness Pal, a site where users track eating and exercise habits and discuss their progress with other members.

Crystal Olson

In October, she created a “50-day challenge” group to help lose leftover pregnancy weight. More than 200 My Fitness Pal users joined her. Olson said the online support group keeps her on track.

Friends leave encouraging comments after she adds a spin class to her exercise diary. And the group sends messages when someone hasn't checked in lately: “Come back! We miss you.”

“Social media is what has kept me motivated in my 'get rid of this baby weight' journey,” she said. “Even at my fittest, for whatever reason, I'm not as motivated to do anything like that on my own.”

Darling, of Omaha, regularly uses Twitter and Foursquare, a smartphone application that shares his location with friends. Social media also helps him hold others accountable at the gym, including Brenda Reed, a student-teacher at Dundee Elementary where Darling teaches fourth grade.

Brenda Reed

She tells him to call her out if she's not there in the morning.

“Working out is a big part of my life,” Reed said. “But to have that little push when it's cold or when you're really tired, that helps.”

Her competitive edge doesn't hurt either.

“I want to be mayor,” she laughed.

The Foursquare “mayor” is the person who has visited a location most often in the last 60 days. Darling has held the title at 24 Hour Fitness, near 77th and Cass Streets in Omaha, on and off for two years. The gym is one of the most popular Foursquare locations in Omaha, with more than 12,000 check-ins.

“It's not so much about losing the mayorship,” he said. “A fictitious mayorship, does it really matter? Probably not. ... (But) this is something that shows I put my work in.”

Though research is still in its infancy, psychologist Stark believes people who actively post their health goals to social media sites are more likely to meet them than those who don't. Peer pressure — positive and negative —– forces you to act.

“That's the power of social media,” he said.

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