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BODY WATCH : Taking a Byte Out of the Dieting Challenge


How can you lose weight sitting in front of a computer?

Some are trying it, through on-line support groups, the latest refuge of ever-dieting Americans.

Although the idea sounds paradoxical at first--sitting at a computer is part of the sedentary lifestyle that got us into this shape to begin with--on-line services offer people a chance to share helpful information and cheer each other on.

No weigh-ins, no lectures, no specially prepared meals. Instead, there are bulletin boards, where participants post queries ("Isn't there some way to lose 40 pounds really fast?"), tell success stories, and warn others of pitfalls.

In America Online's bulletin board, found in its lifestyle section, people often advertise for buddies willing to communicate via e-mail about their ongoing struggles with weight and exercise.

"It's a very safe way to tell someone relatively personal things," says Louisa Hart, who runs a public relations business out of her Bethesda, Md., home. "It's like talking to someone you meet on an airplane. There's that same sense you can bail out."

Hart posted a request for a dieting pen pal earlier this year and received five responses. She selected one to correspond with, and has found the electronic relationship satisfying.

The weekly notes, which are just one part of a weight-loss plan that includes Weight Watchers and walking, keep her spirits up as she tries to lose 40 pounds.

"When push comes to shove, it's just you against the refrigerator," she says. "This is an enhancement. I don't think it's a replacement for other things. All I can say is that it's working for me."

Despite the lack of physical contact, plenty of people are shedding pounds with the help of on-line support groups.

Marjie Adams of Pittsburgh gained 40 pounds after surgery last year. She knew how to calculate the fat grams in a cupcake and what she should be doing to lose weight, but just couldn't get motivated.

On-line, she has found the support she needs to examine the psychological aspect of her dieting dilemma.

"I needed something more, something a little more personal," she says. "I'm pretty much satisfied with my life, except from the neck down."

There are pitfalls to relying exclusively on the information provided on-line.

While America Online monitors its bulletin boards, in part to keep would-be advertisers at bay, misinformation can flourish. And there's no easy way to check the credentials of a self-proclaimed expert.

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