The More You 'Spark,' The More You'll Lose

Researchers have been studying what works—and what doesn't—for real, permanent weight loss for years. Various weight-loss interventions (from specialized diets to in-person support groups to educational sessions to weight-loss apps) have been analyzed, scrutinized, and reviewed in hopes of finding "the" answer to the obesity epidemic.
But these studies, while more scientific and controlled than weight-loss reality shows, have something common with the latter: They rarely reflect how real people lose weight in the real world. Many weight-loss studies enroll volunteers who not only know they're being studied (which can skew results) but are usually paid for their participation—and even receive free access to a variety of weight-loss tools that might otherwise be out of their reach. I don't know about you, but if I wanted to lose weight and enrolled myself in a study to do so, was paid for my time, and received free access to experts, support groups, tools and more—I'd probably be more successful. Tell me to figure it out on my own and find my own motivation to stick with it, and my results would be entirely different.
A recent study broke all of the old rules in weight-loss research. Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School, led by researcher Kevin Hwang, M.D., M.P.H., wanted to see how well people would lose weight when they didn't get paid to do so, when they didn't know they were part of a study, and when they used a free, universally available weight-loss program on their own. The program they chose to examine was, America’s largest diet and fitness website by unique visitors, according to comScore, an Internet technology company. Yep, it's even bigger than Weight Watchers Online—but it doesn't cost members a dime.
Hwang and his colleagues report that this could very well be the first analysis of a natural cohort of members of a free online weight-loss community, so their findings reflect the real world. Moreover, “Because this [SparkPeople] online program is free, scalable, and widely disseminated, the potential public health impact is significant," the researchers wrote in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, which published their findings in February 2013.
So what did they discover?
Put simply, the more that members used and interacted with the SparkPeople website, the more weight they lost. More specifically, reporting weight changes (whether increases or decreases) and interacting within the SparkPeople Community forums were both associated with significant weight loss compared to those who did not use these tools. Additional SparkPeople tools other than the weight tracker and forums also correlated with increased weight loss in the study, but not a statistically significant amount.
SparkPeople engineers provided the researchers with data of a random sample of members who joined the site within a three-month period in 2008 and included all available follow-up data for these members through May 10, 2010. Members did not know their data was being collected or that they were part of a study, and all personal identifiers and usernames were removed for privacy. The final study sample included 1,258 members (91% female, average BMI of 31.6) who had at least two self-reported "weigh in" entries and adequate data to allow complete analysis.
Members who entered their weight at least four times a month lost 11 more pounds per month  than those who did not, regardless of the duration of their membership. (Hwang said that they considered the possibility that "members made weight entries only when they were losing (rather than gaining) weight," which could have skewed the results. However, 71 percent of subjects in the study posted at least one instance of weight gain.) Likewise, members who posted at least one message on a message board in the SparkPeople Community lost 3 pounds more than those who did not post at all.
Action Sparked
If you're reading this, chances are that you're already a member. (And if you're not, join now—it's free.) We've long known that our program, with its evidence-based and medically accepted recommendations for nutrition, fitness and weight-loss, works. But like any program, it works when YOU put in the work. This study shows that being an active participant in your weight-loss journey pays off, and confirms what previous studies have shown: that tracking your weight over time is beneficial to your progress. It also proves what SparkPeople has known from our own statistics and surveys for a while now: that members who have and utilize a support system, including our online forums, will get better results than those who go it alone. So consider this your call to action to get active in our vibrant and positive Community, to track your progress (you can weigh in right here!), and get engaged in the process of weight loss.
Those who are living the SparkPeople lifestyle and are seeing results are sure to back up these findings. Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments below! We'd also love YOUR help telling others about this significant study. Please "like," tweet, email or share this article (use the one-click buttons to the left) to help spread the word that SparkPeople doesn't just work for you, but it works for many others-- and we now have even more research on our side to provide it. As a free service with recipes, articles, tracking tools, mobile access, community support and so much more, we are more invested in our mission to SPARK millions of PEOPLE to live healthier, happier lives than ever. Thanks for your support!
Comstock, Jonah. "Free online weight loss community SparkPeople improves outcomes in peer-reviewed study." Accessed February 19, 2013.
Hwang K.O., Ning J., Trickey A.W., Sciamanna C.N."Website Usage and Weight Loss in a Free Commercial Online Weight Loss Program: Retrospective Cohort Study." Journal of Medical Internet Research (2013):15(1):e11. Accessed February 19, 2013. doi: 10.2196/jmir.2195.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “Study reveals keys to success in free online weight loss program.” Accessed February 19, 2013.
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Member Comments

I just re-joined SparkPeople and am planning to be more active this time, especially after reading this article. Reading other people's comments from people who are going through their own challenges is motivating. Report
I tried every kind of diet, including Weight Watchers, and was successful a few times, but as soon as I took my eye off the ball, boom, the weight came back. What I love about Sparkpeople are the trackers, especially the food part because I now know that one must eat a balanced diet including fats and carbohydrates. We have been brainwashed for years thinking if we didn't eat these we would be thin. I also appreciate the support of all the members who cheer me on. I am slowly but surely reaching my goal. Thank you Sparkpeople. I tell everyone about this website. Amazingly, I think I eat more now that I am eating correctly. Report
I don't own a scale, so I rarely post my weight. I've posted comments on spark pages, but that's not what I do most of the time. Yet I've maintained my weight loss since joining SparkPeople. What I do use is the nutrition and fitness trackers. Those two tools, I find, are key to ensuring I'm following a healthy lifestyle. Report
After being a Spark member for a couple years and falling off the wagon when my mom passed away last year, I can truly attest when you're faithful and diligent with logging stuff you're more apt to see results. Report
I can attest to this study. When I am active on SparkPeople I am more aware of what I am doing as far as nutrition and fitness, even when I don't meet my goals. When I track my food and fitness I am more successful in healthy eating. It is true - it makes me more accountable. I LOVE, LOVE LOVE SparkPeople! Report
Intesteresting article. 91% female--I guess if I think about it that sounds right--boy am I in the minority! Report
This is yet another great article. I know feel very confident that i will lose the weight I want to and will be able to keep it off. Thanks so much Sparks People for all that you do!!! Report
From my personal experience - initially I lost weight (and money) with Weight Watchers but did not get any support or have any real interaction. SparkPeople however feels a much better fit for me because I feel more accountable to myself (not the person who does the WW weigh in), I interact with with people and read tips, tricks, ideas, motivation - a good all round interaction that I will not drop because I object to having to pay an on-line fee after I have earned my 'free' lifetime membershiip. Thank you SparkPeople, thank you my Spark friends.

As an aside 'after a five year study, we found that you can make a lot of money from 5 year studies' ;) Seriously though, I think that this study was unbiased and the results were interesting and meaningful - imagine the effect on America's obesity problems if more people were to take part in this program ! Report
All I know is that about 3 years ago SparkPeople helped me tremendously in reaching my weight goal as well as some fitness goals. Then I left, got sidetracked with other things and my diet and fitness became less of a priority. Well, what do you know, the weight came back along with some extra and I lost most of the strength I'd worked so hard for. Now that I've rejoined, I'm slowly making my way back to where I was. Lesson learned. Sites like this give me exactly the sort of motivation I need. Report
Three years and 34,507 sparkpoints later, I continue to maintain over 30 pounds of weight loss. SparkPeople works as long as you do the work on SparkPeople.

Thank you to everyone at SparkPeople who makes the site innovative, interactive, and useful. I would not have maintained without the community and tools. Report
This research is right on target! What an amazing service Spark People is! Report


About The Author

Nicole Nichols
Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.
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