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Your friends reveal more about your health than your fitness tracker

If you wear a fitness tracker, no doubt you check it throughout the day, tallying your steps or checking your heart rate and patting yourself on the back as you get closer to your goals. But a new study finds that your faithful Fitbit really isn’t as much of an indicator of your health and fitness as the people you hang out with.

Researchers (and, heck, our parents) have long known that our peers influence whether we drink or smoke or engage in other not-so-healthy habits. Now scientists wanted to take a closer look to see if friends also influence health, as well as happiness and stress.

“We were interested in the topology of the social network — what does my position within my social network predict about my health and well-being?” said study lead author Nitesh V. Chawla, professor of computer science and engineering at Notre Dame, in a statement. “What we found was the social network structure provides a significant improvement in predictability of wellness states of an individual over just using the data derived from wearables, like the number of steps or heart rate.”

Participants in the study wore Fitbits so researchers could gather information about steps, heart rate, sleep data and activity level. They also completed surveys about their feelings of happiness, positivity and stress. Researchers captured data about the participants’ social networks using a phone app that gathered information about calls and texts.

The team then analyzed the data, comparing the tracker information to the social network characteristics. The results, which were published in the journal PLOS ONE, showed a strong correlation between the structure of the participants’ social network and their heart rate, the number of steps they took and their daily level of activity.

Friends vs. Fitbit

man and woman checking fitness trackers on wrists Fitness trackers and friends pack a one-two punch. (Photo: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Adding information from a social network made for a much better predictor of an individual’s health and well-being versus just looking at Fitbit health data alone, the study found. When researchers combined friend group info with data from fitness trackers, they had a 65% improvement in predicting a person’s happiness, 54% improvement in predicting a person’s self-assessed health, 55% improvement in predicting positive attitude and 38% improvement in predicting feelings of success.

“This study asserts that without social network information, we only have an incomplete view of an individual’s wellness state, and to be fully predictive or to be able to derive interventions, it is critical to be aware of the social network structural features as well,” Chawla said.

The researchers suggest that one way these research results might be used is in the workplace. Employers who give workers fitness trackers in order to improve their health could suggest they share their progress on a social media platform in order to build an encouraging network.

“I do believe these incentives that we institute at work are meaningful, but I also believe we’re not seeing the effect because we may not be capitalizing on them the way we should,” Chawla said.

“When we hear that health and wellness programs driven by wearables at places of employment aren’t working, we should be asking, is it because we’re just taking a single dimensional view where we just give the employees the wearables and forget about it without taking the step to understand the role social networks play in health?”

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Your friends reveal more about your health than your fitness tracker

Your social network predicts your health and wellness more than your fitness tracker, study finds.


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