Weight loss site ventures into social networking

SparkPeople.com starts MySpace-like feature, in an effort to jump on the social-networking site bandwagon.

SparkPeople.com, a site that offers advice on weight loss, nutrition and exercise, announced Wednesday that it has launched a social-networking service that will let people interact and participate in community groups.

Previously, SparkPeople had offered message boards so that site members could talk about topics ranging from low-fat diet strategies to the best running shoes. Now those discussion forums are being supplemented by new features that aim to capitalize on the popularity of social-networking sites such as MySpace.com.

Participants will be able to create profiles where they can upload pictures, write blog entries, send messages to other users and build friends lists. Additionally, the company has launched online community groups it calls "SparkTeams" in order to draw together users who share common interests within the broader categories of dieting, health and fitness.

SparkPeople's average member, according to founder and CEO Chris Downie, is a 31- to 36-year-old female. But he emphasized that registered users run the gamut from the site's minimum age of 18 through people in their 70s and 80s, and are divided between both genders. "We're really all over the place," he said.

Despite the explosive spread of social networks that some have likened to the doomed dot-com bubble, Downie is confident that SparkPeople's new service will find its niche. One reason he cited is that most of the site's existing members--75 percent, according to an internal survey--do not use other social-networking sites.

SparkPeople's average demographic "has been used to joining weight loss sites like eDiets and Weight Watchers, but I would guess that this is their first experience with social-networking communities," he said. Downie added that SparkPeople is the first--and so far, only--weight loss site to offer extensive social-networking capabilities.

A veteran of Procter & Gamble and then eBay, Downie founded SparkPeople as an extension of his own personal fitness philosophy. "As a kid I was shy and had anxiety," he said, "and I developed this program that combined goal setting to help your mind with diet and exercise to help your body."

Downie insisted that SparkPeople is more than just another fad-diet site. "A lot of people will join to just lose weight, but we help them make this lifestyle change and also set goals in other areas of life as well," he said.

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