First step to fitness: friendship

Author: Nicole White '19

News Fitbit 11 Photo by Barbara Johnston

It’s about friends, not Fitbit.

As the market in digital fitness trackers has grown over the last decade, users have come to think of their health in terms of steps, heart rate and hours of sleep. Now, research led by Nitesh Chawla, the Frank M. Freimann professor of computer science and engineering at Notre Dame, has found that focusing only on physical-fitness data leaves out the most indicative facet of gauging a person’s overall well-being: relationships.

The peer-reviewed study, published in the online, interdisciplinary research journal PLOS ONE in June, collected information from 698 Notre Dame students in the Class of 2019. The students wore a Fitbit Charge HR to track their physical activity, submitted information about phone calls and texts through an app and completed surveys about their stress, happiness, positivity and physical health. After analyzing patterns in the students’ communications, researchers from Notre Dame and the University of Wroclaw in Poland found they were better able to predict an individual’s overall well-being by incorporating the social-network information than by relying on the fitness statistics alone.

“This study asserts that without social-network information, we only have an incomplete view of an individual’s wellness state,” Chawla says, “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.”

The findings further indicated the likelihood that people will share similar fitness habits with their close family and friends. Chawla told the online magazine Inverse about reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, an achievement he attributes more to the encouragement and support of his climbing group than to his intense physical training.

“Imagine the context of having a gym buddy or group,” he said. “There is that support, that understanding, that motivation, and that perception of self and others that helps us develop that social-network support.”

The study’s results could be beneficial to companies that invest in health-tracking devices in order to incentivize employee wellness. Encouraging workers to share their progress on a social-media platform could maximize the impact of such efforts, Chawla says. “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.”

Nicole White was this magazine's summer intern.