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Friends are Better Predictors of Health than Personal Fitness Trackers

Friends are Better Predictors of Health than Personal Fitness Trackers

New research suggests the growth in utilization of wearable fitness trackers has led to incorrect assumptions about our health. Nowadays, we often look at our heart rate to determine if we are stressed or think ourselves healthier based on the number of steps we’ve taken by the end of the day. A new Notre Dame study finds that a better determination of health and wellness is found by looking at the strength and structure of your circle of friends.

While previous studies have shown how beliefs, opinions and attitudes spread throughout our social networks, researchers at the University of Notre Dame were interested in what the structure of social networks says about the state of health, 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 Nitesh V. Chawla, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Science and Applications and a lead author of the study.

“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.”

For the study, found in the journal PLOS ONE, participants wore Fitbits to capture health behavior data — such as steps, sleep, heart rate and activity level. They also completed surveys and self-assessments about their feelings of stress, happiness and positivity.

Chawla and his team then analyzed and modeled the data, using machine learning, alongside an individual’s social network characteristics including degree, centrality, clustering coefficient and number of triangles.

These characteristics are indicative of properties like connectivity, social balance, reciprocity and closeness within the social network. The study showed a strong correlation between social network structures, heart rate, number of steps and level of activity.

Social network structure provided significant improvement in predicting one’s health and well-being compared to just looking at health behavior data from the Fitbit alone.

For example, when social network structure is combined with the data derived from wearables, the machine learning model achieved a 65 percent improvement in predicting happiness, 54 percent improvement in predicting one’s self-assessed health prediction, 55 percent improvement in predicting positive attitude, and 38 percent improvement in predicting 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 findings could provide insight to employers who look to wearable fitness devices to incentivize employees to improve their health. Handing someone a means to track their steps and monitor their health in the hopes that their health improves simply may not be enough to see meaningful or significant results.

Those employers, Chawla said, would benefit from encouraging employees to build a platform to post and share their experiences with each other. Social network structure helps complete the picture of health and well-being.

“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?”

Source: University of Notre Dame

Friends are Better Predictors of Health than Personal Fitness Trackers

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Friends are Better Predictors of Health than Personal Fitness Trackers. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 16, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2019/06/21/friends-are-better-predictors-of-health-than-personal-fitness-trackers/147988.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 21 Jun 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 21 Jun 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.