If you’re at the gym and spy somebody taking one of the butt, abs, or chest selfies that inundate social media, don’t laugh at them. The selfies they take and post on social media could make the difference between success and failure in meeting their weight loss goals.

Researchers at American University recently published a study in the Journal of Interactive Marketing. The study, titled “Weight Loss Through Virtual Support Communities: A Role for Identity-based Motivation in Public Commitment”, examines the role online commitment plays when it comes to weight loss.

Online peer pressure can be a good thing

Researchers studied surgical and non-surgical weight loss groups. They also studied how the participants interacted with Virtual Support Communities (VSC).

An example of VCS would be forums or other online communities where people with similar interests post and read news and participate in online discussions about the interests. These groups can be found on just about any social media outlet.

In most cases, the people don’t know each other personally.

Researchers learned that announcing weight loss goals online, posting selfies, and posting progress photos, all play a big part in people achieving their weight loss goals.

These findings are similar to what people already know about conventional goal setting.

People who share their goals with others, especially supportive people, have a much higher chance of meeting their goals.

It all boils down to the dreaded ‘A’ word in weight loss

Accountability is one of the most powerful psychological forces in the world. When you announce a goal to a group of friends, and they help you stay accountable to your goals, chances are you’re going to meet that goal.

The findings of the study seem to show that online accountability has a similar effect.

Posting selfies online, announcing goals in a forum, and posting progress and before/after photos seem to motivate people to stick to their goals and actively work towards reaching them.

Online weight loss communities provide a measure of safety

There are differences between announcing your goals to somebody in person and telling a bunch of strangers on the internet. You don’t have to use your real name, you could lie about your progress, post fake photographs, etc.

However, most people don’t do that.

The same anonymity that allows you to be less than honest can also allow you to be painfully honest.

According to Dr. Sonya A. Grier, professor of marketing at the American University Kogod School of Business, “Not everyone can get the support they need from the people they interact with, in person, on a daily basis. It is helpful that technology can support community building and goal achievement in virtual spaces.”

Give your weight loss a virtual boost

You can try adding this approach to your healthy lifestyle today.

Join an online weight loss community and begin to participate by reading posts and learning about people’s goals. Read other people’s responses and make sure the overall feeling f the community is positive.

When you feel comfortable, go ahead and post your goals and even a couple of photos.

See if regular participation helps you achieve your goals easier or faster.