Researchers use Twitter and artificial intelligence to see who’s exercising

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Social media captures demographic data on physical activity by using Twitter and artificial intelligence (AI), a new study shows.

A team of researchers at Boston University School of Medicine examined the use of data from social media for surveillance of the physical activity of residents in the United States. They found that social media can provide population-view of overall physical fitness, including activities such as bowling, Crossfit, walking, and gym-based activities, among others.

In the study, which was published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, the team utilized machine learning to explore, find, and filter through exercise-related tweets across the country.

Image Credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock
Image Credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock

Social media provides vital data for fitness

They filtered and combed through demographic data, revealing regional and gender differences in the forms of exercise and intensity levels. They analyzed tweet language, showing how varied populations feel about the wide range of exercise.

"In most cases, lower-income communities tend to lack access to resources that encourage a healthy lifestyle. By understanding differences in how people are exercising across different communities, we can design interventions that target the specific needs of those communities,” Dr. Elaine Nsoesie, assistant professor of global health at BUSPH, said in a statement.

Soon, social media and other digital data could provide important data and information about a population’s physical activities. In turn, this could help formulate policies and interventions for various populations in terms of overall health and fitness. Aside from that, the data can help unveils what people think about various physical activities.

The study findings

To land to their findings, the researchers used artificial models to discover and analyze about 1,382,284 tweets by more than 480,000 Twitter users across the country, from about 2,900 counties. After analyzing the tweets, they compared them by gender and the location (Northeast, Midwest, West, and South).

They found that the top tweeted exercise terms were walk, dance, golf, workout, run, pool, hike, yoga, swim, and bowl. The most popular exercise activity is walking. Also, the link between tweet patterns and physical activity prevalence differ by region and gender.

Moreover, both men and women tweeted engaging in gym-based activities at almost the same rates. However, for men, Crossfit was the most mentioned activity on their tweets, while yoga is the most popular fitness activity among women. The findings also unveil that men participate in higher intensity exercise activities than women. But, overall, counties with increased exercise tweets had lower leisure-time physical inactivity rates for both men and women.

In terms of location or region, the South area had the largest gender gap in exercise intensity.

“The regional-specific and sex-specific activity patterns captured on Twitter may allow public health officials to identify changes in health behaviors at small geographical scales and to design interventions best suited for specific populations,” the researchers concluded in the study.

The study could provide important information on exercise activities of individuals on the national level. This way, interventions can be tailored for constituents, depending on their gender and region.

Why is physical activity and fitness important?

Physical activity provides long-term health benefits for people of all ages. Being active means burning the calories stored from eating throughout the day. It comes in various forms, like walking, running a marathon, or hitting the gym.

Proper nutrition and physical activity or exercise benefits people in many ways. For instance, it prevents being overweight or obese. Over the past decades, there has been a marked increase in people who are obese and overweight.

In 2016 alone, more than 650 million adults were obese, almost tripling the number of people who are obese since 1975. In the United States, about one-third of adults are obese and about 17 percent of kids and teens are obese.

Aside from obesity, being physically active reduces the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer, which are all the leading causes of death. It also helps prevent the development of type 2 diabetes, depressive symptoms, and high blood pressure, to name a few.

By incorporating exercise into daily activities, approximately 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, as well as eating healthy, there will be positive benefits to people from all walks of life.

Journal reference:

Cesare N, Nguyen QC, Grant C, et al Social media captures demographic and regional physical activity BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine 2019;5:e000567. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2019-000567,

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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