Can Surfing the Internet Help You Lose Weight?

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Interactive weight management websites help people maintain weight loss.

The Web, it sometimes seems, is a siren specter that lures us into sitting around like some species of houseplant while our trunk grows abnormally wide. Its abundant enticements keep us from doing what we know we should, like, say, making any movement whatsoever or consuming foods that do not come packaged in styrofoam.

But according to new research, the Internet can also be something else: a place for helping people keep weight off.

The new study, conducted over a two-and-a-half-year period, found that the more often people logged on to a website, the more likely they were to maintain weight loss. Of course, it wasn't just any old website, but one that investigators at the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research (KPCHR) had designed specifically to help people keep the pounds off.

What made the website work, the authors of the study believe, was its mixture of accountability and sociability. Users were asked log in once a week to enter their weight and the amount of exercise they'd done. If they didn't log in regularly, they got a little nudge by e-mail, then an automated phone call. Once on the site, users could chat with other participants of the study in a kind of mini-Facebook setting.

The site was designed to mimic as much as possible what it's like to be in a weight-loss program that offers personal counseling and group meetings. It wasn't quite as effective as human-to-human interaction, but it was better than nothing at all. "While personal counseling may be the Cadillac version, it's not practical for everyone," says Kristine Funk, lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The study began with 1,600 overweight or obese participants, about 350 of whom lost enough weight — an average 19 lb. — during the first six months to stay in the trial for the Web-based maintenance phase. By the end of that two-and-a-half-year portion of the study, the users who had logged on the most regularly — at least once a month for 28 months — had kept off the most weight, an average of 9 lbs. People who used the website the least kept off only 3 lb. on average. "The consistency piece is definitely very important for keeping weight gain at bay," says Funk.

None of this is particularly surprising to Nancy Makin, who lost more than a quarter of ton after her sister bought her a computer for her birthday in 2003. Afraid to go out, because of the stares her 703 lb. frame attracted, she went online and found she could easily make friends with people who couldn't see her.

"The people on the Internet didn't know they were supposed to reject me," says Makin, who now weighs about 170 lbs. "And that fed me and I was allowed to let my spirit come out. I replaced a very poor tool for judging myself with a very fulfilling activity."

Once she found a community online, Makin says began to lose weight, not because she was less hungry, but because she had an activity besides eating that made her feel good. And because she felt better about herself. "I had 20 emails in my inbox each morning," she says.

The original KPCHR site is no longer live, but Funk notes there are plenty of others that do almost the same thing. "What you want to look for is a site that has a few key components: a recording feature to keep track of weight, a feedback mechanism and support resources from either experts or other high quality information," she advises.

Makin, whose memoir, 703, came out earlier this year, says that while accountability is important for those who are merely overweight, community may be more important for people who are morbidly obese like she was. "The key is to find contentment and value in yourself by reaching out and doing something not for you, and the weight will come off as a side effect," she says.

And if you have a website where you can talk about it, so much the better.