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Is Weight-Loss Contagious?


When you heard the word "contagious," it's usually in reference to something you don't want — like the flu or cooties. But what if healthy things — like eating right, working out and losing weight — were contagious, too? According to new research, they just might be. 

Recently published online in the journal Obesity, researchers found that people involved in a team-based weight-loss competition significantly influenced each other's weight loss. Looking at data from the 2009 Shape Up Rhode Island campaign, a 12-week statewide online weight-loss competition that included 3,330 overweight or obese individuals, researchers learned that weight-loss outcomes varied from team to team — and in some interesting ways.

Teams were divided into three divisions according to goal: weight loss, physical activity, and pedometer steps. Turns out, those participants who lost clinically significant amounts of weight (at least 5 percent of their initial body weight) tended to be on the same teams. Furthermore, according to the research, being on a team with more teammates in the weight-loss division was also associated with a greater weight loss. Those who reported higher levels of teammate social influence increased their odds of achieving a clinically significant weight loss by 20 percent, too.

Overall, these results suggest that shedding pounds can have a ripple effect among social circles  be it friends, coworkers, family or really anyone with shared interests and goals!

"Harnessing your social network may enhance weight-loss outcomes," says Tricia M. Leahey, researcher at The Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center and Brown University. "Teaming up with friends, family, and coworkers who are motivated and serious about weight control, providing support to and setting goals with one another, and holding each other accountable may all enhance weight-loss outcomes."

Not only was weight-loss found to be contagious in the study, but it was also found to be boosted by competition.

"There was inter-team competition in Shape Up, and there are data from previous studies suggesting that such an approach may enhance weight-loss teams working together to reach a common goal and 'beat' other teams to be the 'biggest loser' can bolster weight outcomes," Leahey says.

Other interesting results? Team leaders were the most successful at losing weight, and team demographics, such as gender and age, didn't really matter, Leahey says.

"Individuals who were trying to lose weight but were on teams with teammates that were more focused on increasing physical activity and not weight-loss didn't do as well — so it helps to have a common goal," she says.

While more research is needed — and Leahey is currently working on a follow-up study — you can start putting this new information into use today by getting together everyone you know who wants to lose weight or get healthy.

"Contact friends, family and colleagues who are all motivated and serious about weight loss," she says.  "Set weight-loss goals with one another, encourage each other and hold each other accountable by making exercise 'appointments' with each other and periodically sharing weight-loss progress."

In other words, catch the healthy living bug by surrounding yourself with others who have it, too! Do you think weight-loss and healthy behaviors are contagious? Share your thoughts!


Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites and A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.


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