Can Email Help Your Health?

Study shows electronic messages may help you adopt better habits

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD on August 12, 2005
5 min read

Can what's in your inbox help you lose weight?

Absolutely, says Leah Carmel of Beltsville, Md.

"I've been with WebMD's Weight Loss Clinic since June of 2003, and I've lost a total of 79 pounds," Carmel says, "I've had my share of hiccups, but I've kept chugging along with the help of weekly newsletters from WebMD and daily emails with 'Words to Lose by.'"

To her, these newsletters -- with links to articles on diet, exercise, and health; status reports on Weight Loss Clinic members; and health-conscious recipes -- are so much more than spam.

"I have a huge 6-inch binder full of all the newsletters, and I print out each of the 'Words to Lose by,'" says Carmel. "I go back and read them when I need to and that keeps my motivation going."

Indeed, a recent study indicates that contrary to popular opinion, spam can be good for your health -- at least, when it's a steady diet of health-related emails.

Researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada, looked at the effects that emails containing healthy information had on a group of Canadian workers. During the 12-week study period, 1,566 members of the group got weekly messages about healthy eating and physical activity. A comparison group of 555 people did not receive the emails.

The researchers found that the group that got the emails increased physical activity levels by about 3% and improved their eating habits, while those who didn't get the emails decreased their physical activity by about 11% and saw only a slight increase in healthy eating habits. The email group also ended up with a small reduction in mean BMI (body mass index), while the mean BMI of the other group went up slightly.

The email recipients revealed "more confidence in being able to participate in physical activity, greater intention to participate in physical activity, and perceived more advantages and fewer disadvantages of physical activity participation," according to the study, published in the July/August 2005 edition of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

"The findings of this study suggest that email-based physical activity and dietary messages can produce small changes in physical activity attitudes and behavior and nutrition-related behavior," the researchers wrote.

American Dietetic Association spokesperson Susan Moores, RD, says the idea is encouraging.

"As a practitioner, I was delighted to see this research," says Moores, a dietitian in St. Paul, Minn. "That people will pay attention to health information in email is really exciting. It has great potential, and that it can make a difference is really encouraging news."

What is it about email that can help encourage some people to stick with their health goals?

"It's almost like a friend asking you how you are doing on your diet," says Rick Hall, RD, who serves on the advisory board for the Arizona Governor's Council on Health, Physical Fitness, and Sports. "If someone is going to send you an email once a day or week or month, it'll force you to keep your diet and exercise in mind."

And with our busy lifestyles, having that gentle reminder may help us keep an eye on the prize.

"Often when we eat, or snack, it's while we are doing something else, so we're not putting a lot of thought into our diets," says Hall. "Even if it's something we are committed to, having a reminder in front of us like that helps, and it changes behavior."

Regular emails, Hall says, also help change your attitude from reactive to proactive

"If, five minutes before you go to an office party, you get an email about nutrition, you might choose to skip the cake and eat something healthy instead," Hall says.

Of course, unless you actually take action on what you've read about, nothing will change.

"We have to take what we've read and seen and heard, and get out there and make it happen," says Moores.

So how do you go about doing that? Hall offers some tips:

  • Print your newsletters. "Email newsletters, for the most part, are short," says Hall. "You can read them really quickly, and you can print them out. Take it with you on the bus, read them in between meetings -- they're quick and easy, and the beauty of email is that it's convenient."

  • Keep your health news handy. "Tape the newsletter to your refrigerator, or put it on your bathroom door, especially if it's really interesting," says Hall. "If it's in your face, you're going to remember it."

  • Share the wealth. "E-newsletters are easy to forward on to other people, so share them with your friends so you can support each other," Hall tells WebMD.

  • Send it to your PDA. "With today's technology, people are carrying portable devices, and many get their email sent to that," says Hall. "So the newsletters are something you can have access to all the time."

  • Use your online (or paper) calendar. "If people are going to be serious about eating healthy and exercising, they need to put reminders on their calendar," says Hall. "Use the interesting information in the newsletters as reminders on your calendar."

It's important to remember that you need more than just e-support, experts say.

Online coaching and counseling is "a terrific tool for staying connected," says Moores, "as long as you keep that human element to it. There's a lot of power in person-to-person contact."

Carmel does turn to her real-life friends and family when she needs help keeping her diet and exercise on track. But she also relies on her "e-family."

"With the newsletters, the 'Words to Lose By,' and the Weight Loss Clinic message boards, I have another family that helps me through the ups and downs," says Carmel. "I read the newsletters every Tuesday when they come out, and I read the 'Words to Lose by' every day, and I read the message boards a lot, too. They really are a huge help, and they really help keep me motivated."