Online Peer-to-Peer Connections Key in Weight Loss Surgery Success

About 250,000 morbidly obese adult Americans will undergo Weight Loss Surgery (WLS) this year to have their intestines cut and rearranged in a drastic attempt to lose weight and put their obesity in remission. In addition to surgical intervention they will agree to follow a high protein, low carbohydrate diet, engage in daily physical activity, avoid snacking on empty calorie foods, and drink lots of water. Most will lose significant weight; enough weight so they will no longer be classified obese. Many will sustain that weight loss but sadly, others will regain some or most of the weight they lose. A lack of support network is often cited by those who regain weight as one reason they struggled to lose weight and keep it off, even with the drastic measure of weight loss surgery.

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Support groups are old business for people pursuing weight loss. Many conventional mainstream weight loss programs are built around solid support systems. Most bariatric centers, as part of their surgical weight loss program, offer support groups to patients. In most cases support group attendance and participation is voluntary.

The Internet now provides a vast network of support groups that studies indicate are providing a viable method of peer-to-peer support, particularly in the life long battle of weight management. A 2002 study reported in the Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests that in a support group, members provide each other with various types of help, usually nonprofessional and nonmaterial, for a particular shared, usually burdensome, characteristic. The help may take the form of providing and evaluating relevant information, relating personal experiences, listening to and accepting others' experiences, providing sympathetic understanding and establishing social networks. The real time nature of online support groups is preferred by community members who may be forced to wait weeks before the next live group meeting is conducted at which they can share their concerns.

As the owner of an established weight loss surgery online support group I have observed members come and go. It is interesting to note that pre-operative WLS patients are highly active in the community asking questions and seeking knowledge about the WLS post-operative experience. They continue to actively participate in the community in the weeks and months following surgery. Almost like clockwork as patients achieve healthy weight goals, or perhaps struggle to reach goals, they drift away from the community and the support they valued during the phase of weight loss. Perhaps they leave because their improved health has given way to new lifestyle activities making less time for Internet connecting. Some admit leaving because they feel their weight loss does not compare favorably to others. Others have told me the WLS chapter of their life is closed once goal weight is reached and they chose to move along.

More important to note is that many former community members return after an extended absence only to admit that giving up their online support network was the first step in getting off track in weight loss and weight maintenance with gastric surgery. The accountability and shared empowerment that comes in a peer-to-peer support network clearly plays a key role in the success or failure of bariatric patients. Members who join the group to receive support and then stay with the group to return support report the highest level of personal success with weight loss surgery.

"In good online support groups, members stick around long after they have received the support they were seeking." John M. Grohol reports in his article, What to look for in Quality Online Support Groups. He adds "Members stay because they want to give others what they themselves found in the group. Psychologists call this high group cohesion, and it is the pinnacle of group achievement."

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