How community, social networks and building habits helped me get fitter and healthier

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That might sound like a bit of an odd title on my blog but bear with me. I have spent the last year making some changes in myself, and I’ve used everything I know about how people work, approaches to change and experimentation in order to do that. This post talks about how I went about it and what has happened so far.

In his latest book, When Dan Pink talks about how endings motivate us. We are more likely to make a big change in years ending with 9. Following suit, a year ago, 4 months before my 40th birthday I decided to make a change and get fit and healthy.

I’m someone who managed to “get away with” doing almost no exercise whilst maintaining the appearance of being mostly healthy. But, like most of us, as I got older that lack of exercise was starting to show. I wanted to enter my 40s feeling healthy, strong and good about myself.

Making change stick

I needed to make a change, so I fell back on what I knew and what I thought could help me, which is

  • surrounding myself with people with similar goals would help motivate me to change
  • making commitments to other people means I am more likely to keep them
  • forming habits would help make the change stick
  • small iterative changes are better than big bang ones

I was reading Social Physics by Alex Pentland at the time (a great book). There were two concepts that particularly resonated with me.

The first is that our social networks play a big part in our behaviour. We are more likely to change our habits by being around people with the habits we want to adopt.

The second was a weight loss experiment where half a group got a financial reward if they lost weight and the other half got a reward if a weight-loss buddy lost weight. The second group were much more successful. He says that social incentive and group incentive seemed to work much better than an individual incentive.

Iteration one (an experiment)

To test all this out, I needed to create a social network of people with similar goals (getting a bit healthier), who would take responsibility for encouraging each other. It’s called Witness the Fitness.

I also wanted to try a buddy aspect, where someone was responsible for motivating another person and someone else was responsible for motivating them.

To keep the group small and friendly I put a call out on facebook to people in my existing network. As it was a distributed group, I chose slack as a communication tool.

The places filled up quickly, I invited people to the slack group and paired them up, then let it run for a month to see what happened.

It was successful at motivating people, great it works. It was clear from the beginning that people’s commitment levels and time to dedicate to it were not the same. Because of this, the buddy approach was pretty inconsistent and didn’t really work.

The feedback from members said things like this:

“Seeing the progress people are making helps keep me motivated”

“I feel inspired to move more seeing others doing it”

“Don’t think the buddy thing is working so well”

“So far not much has happened on the Buddy front”

Iteration two

Based on the feedback, I decided to ditch the buddy concept and focus on the group as a whole. I also added some emphasis on a supportive group, encouraged people to share their achievements and for others to give them a thumbs up or a “well done”.

What’s emerged since then

People come and go in the group as life takes over and they can’t regularly take part or commit to getting healthier, although we always have around ten members in total.

The number of members doesn’t correlate that closely to the number of posts and reactions. Although often there is a spike when a new member joins and around the beginning of the new year.

Witness the Fitness activity data
Witness the Fitness activity data

Most members are active (although that is a requirement for staying in the group). There is a core group of people that have stayed for a while and regularly take part and the group has really helped them get fitter and healthier (and in one case pregnant!)

Early on I added a cobbled together slack app using Zapier and google sheets that posts a weekly leaderboard of engagement. It’s a little reminder to keep active in the group.

Most of us post our weekly goals and an update from the previous week, I find these small regular goals and the public commitment particularly motivating. Slackbot reminds us on a Sunday to do it.

A couple of months ago I added a new app called Eric. Eric is one of my cats who is currently on a diet. He interacts with group members, although sometimes randomly. I love seeing him pop up.

A conversation with the eric bot
A conversation with the eric bot

Did it work for me?

In a word, yes. My overall goal was to get fitter and healthier and I am now fitter and healthier. Others in the group have seen great results too.

A year ago, I couldn’t run for 30seconds without feeling like I was going to keel over. I now run 5+km a few times a week and can run 10k (I have a medal to prove it). I also regularly jump on the turbo trainer for a quick cycle around Watopia, take pilates classes, meditate and have quit drinking alcohol (for the time being).

I have taken an iterative approach and I started small and built from there. I am stronger, healthier and feel much better for it, I’ve even had to buy myself a new wardrobe to fit my new frame.

My NHS health check (the now you’re 40 we’ll see how you’re doing check) was very impressive, which has to be a great sign.

Committing to weekly goals in the group helps me immensely. Sharing experience with others has also been invaluable. I took the cue to start couch to 5k from another member and owe my regular mediation to hearing about others’ experience. I know others have taken up new habits based on suggestions.

Being more active has highlighted issues caused by bad posture, office working and ignoring my damaged shoulder. This means I have a way to go, but I’m getting there and I have a supportive social network to help me.

And if I ever want any extra motivation, I can always watch the Roots Manuva video (watch this, it’s an awesome video).


If you want to know more, ask below. We also have a waiting list for the slack group here.


  1. New blog post: How community, social networks and building habits helped me get fitter and healthier…

  2. Mark Dalgarno

    6 May 2018 at 11:56 am

    I’ve been part of this very supportive community for about a year now. In that time I’ve started yoga and done it about every other day, I’ve lost weight and built my strength with gym trips.

    It’s not all been plain-sailing for me but the group has helped me through the times when my motivation has been low. I’ve picked up lots of tips and met some new people too.

    Thanks to Emily for taking the initiative and keeping the community going. If a free slot comes up, do join…

  3. I’ve also been a part of the WTF journey, though it took me a little longer to get into the swing of it. I’ve now found my pace/level within the community and it’s had a positive impact on my mental as well as physical wellbeing. Good work Emily Webber! I also like Eric’s bot.

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