Epidemiologist leverages social media to support healthy lifestyles for new moms

Molly Waring
Molly Waring

Molly Waring, assistant professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, focuses her research on weight management among childbearing women. She says, “My early research focused on patterns of weight gain during middle age and cardiovascular disease in later life, which got me thinking about preventing weight gain later in life. My research cycled all the way back to prenatal exposures, and as I learned more about the childbearing years, the more this exciting phase of life resonated with me.”

“Pregnant and postpartum women are often motivated to make healthy lifestyle changes but face multiple demands on their time that can get in the way of making changes. It’s a challenging time to intervene for health promotion but it’s a rewarding time.”

Waring and her team have developed a postpartum weight loss intervention based on the Diabetes Prevention Program Lifestyle Intervention, and in a three-year project funded by the NIH National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute are comparing two versions of the weight loss intervention: one version delivered via in-person group sessions and the other via a private Facebook group.

Many women want to lose weight after childbirth, but time constraints and other responsibilities often make it difficult to attend sessions. Waring is interested in providing remote evidence-based lifestyle interventions that new mothers can participate in from home.

“We tailor the intervention to suit new mothers’ needs by creating a healthier version of their normal diet,” Waring says. “We’re helping them make changes that they can maintain long term.”

The current study involving sixty-two women will determine the feasibility of a larger scale project to test whether the Facebook version of the weight loss program leads to just as much weight loss as the version in which women meet face-to-face each week. The first six-month wave was completed in August 2019, and the second will finish in April 2020.

Each wave of the study includes an in-person group and a remote group. The in-person group meets for a weekly 90-minute session with a counselor, discussing diet, nutrition, physical activity and behavioral strategies to overcome challenges. The other group interacts via a private Facebook group, open only to the counselor and participants, and covers the same topics. The counselor posts twice a day, with the women responding with group discussions.

While the project is still underway, Waring reports that women in both groups enjoyed the supportive environment, and weight losses seem promising for both groups.

In addition to Waring, the interdisciplinary team includes Sherry Pagoto, AHS professor and director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media, Tiffany Moore Simas, director of the research division in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the UMass Medical School, and Justin Wang, assistant professor at the Community College of Rhode Island.

With a three-year grant from the USDA, Waring and her team are just beginning a study investigating social media use by mothers seeking information on childhood nutrition. The AHS team working on this project includes Waring, Pagoto, and AHS Professor Valerie Duffy and AHS Assistant Professor Ran Xu.

The first phase will involve a survey of both clinicians who work with children and researchers studying child nutrition, to determine the most common online misconceptions concerning childhood nutrition. An example might be deciding a safe age to introduce certain foods to babies or toddlers. Another survey will go out to mothers of children from newborn to age twelve, querying which social media platforms and sites they frequent and where else they might find information on childhood nutrition, including their pediatrician, family, friends and magazines, and how credible they find these sources.

“We’re focused on how we can help people enhance their life using social media and use it productively to support healthy lifestyles,” says Waring. “We want to help people find good health information and to weed out information that could be harmful.”

A final phase of the study will examine public tweets on a popular misconception about child nutrition, to determine how misinformation spreads across social media.

Waring is also working with Pagoto and Moore Simas on a third project, developing an Instagram-delivered gestational weight gain intervention. “I’m excited to contribute to or lead research that helps us tackle some of these health problems in new and innovative ways,” Waring says.

The statistics on excessive gestational weight gain show mothers with higher rates of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure during pregnancy and increased risk for difficult deliveries including higher incidence of cesarean delivery. Additionally, some studies have shown that women who gain more during pregnancy are more likely to have a child that is overweight by age three.

“There’s been research on prenatal programing and child health,” Waring notes “It’s exciting to see that there is more research across the translational spectrum in this area.”

Several years ago, Waring led a project to develop a program addressing gestational weight gain that was offered via an interactive website. However, the website was difficult to navigate. Since then, Waring has been investigating different platforms that might be more user-friendly.

“We found that many moms with new babies love sharing photos, so we thought Instagram might serve as an attractive platform,” Waring explains.

The project has begun with the examination of some 1600 public Instagram posts related to diet, physical activity or weight gain during pregnancy, to see which topics women tend to discuss.

Next, the team will survey pregnant women, sharing a description of the intervention and assessing interest and concerns about the proposed program. “We want to get women’s feedback early in development—a process that’s called user-centered design,” Waring says. “Then in the spring, we will ask a small group of pregnant women to engage with our posts and tell us what they think of the program.”

Both graduate and undergraduate students are involved in Waring’s research projects. She is a supervisor for the Office of Undergraduate Research Work-Study Research Assistant Program, supervises students receiving academic credit in AHS and mentors students completing their Honors theses. She says, “I really enjoy having students actively engaged in our projects. It’s a great educational experience for students to be involved in grant-funded research—students learn about the scientific process, gain skills, and feel empowered to be contributing to research with the intention of making a positive impact on individual and population health.”

By Kim Colavito Markesich