Column: Is Our Social Network Making Us Fat?

April 6, 2015

Jacqueline[Written by Jacqueline Perreault]

Friends and Family have the largest impact on our health. Choose wisely.

If your dinner date ordered a salad would you? What if your co-worker opted for a run after work instead of a drink? These healthy behaviors just may rub off on us. On the flipside, we are more likely to indulge in guilty pleasures together – like ice cream for breakfast. For better or worse, health behaviors spread from individual to individual.

Researchers are increasingly recognizing the importance of social influences on healthy behaviors, such as physical activity and healthy eating. Focus in the past has been on the impact of environmental resources as where we live, socio-economic status, education and access to health resources. However, social norms have more recently been described as the most powerful form of social control over human behavior. In fact, behavior – both unhealthy and healthy – has been deemed contagious.

In a survey of more than 15,000 people in 12 countries by the public relations agency Edelman, half of the respondents said their friends and family members had the biggest impact on their lifestyle. Another study concluded that social norms for physical activity and eating behaviors predicted how others in a social network would behave. The researchers suggested that intervention strategies aimed at modifying social norms related to healthy behaviors could prove successful.

Similarly, Massive Health, a start up that launched the app Eatery last year, uses information from its hundreds of thousands of users to tell us just how contagious our eating habits can be. Eatery lets users take pictures of their food and then asks them to rate photos of other users’ food based on perceived healthiness. Since it’s launch, Massive Health has found that friends influence the “healthiness” of what we eat by 34.5 %. Furthermore, if our friends are obese, they have found that we’re 57% more likely to be obese.

This information is critical to how we influence positive change – for ourselves, our family and our community. Inspire one person to change their behavior for the better, and healthy behaviors spread like a virus. While you may not be able to change where you live, you can drive positive change by choosing your network wisely and being the person that takes that first step toward a healthy lifestyle.

In my current role at Colonial Group International, I’ve been supporting our mandate in of approaching wellness as an overall culture shift in an organization. At Colonial, they strive to make “healthy” the norm. At the core of their programs lie supportive policies that make it easier to move more at work and eat healthy. However, the use of social networks will take their programs to the next level by reaching the hard to reach, maintaining healthy behavior and increasing lifestyle change success.

This month Colonial introduced on-line wellness accounts and social memberships to family and friends of their current wellness membership base. Extending wellness services to spouses, dependents and friends to support healthy lifestyles may just be the key to fighting obesity and chronic diseases.

Here are a few pointers on how to use YOUR social network to drive positive behavior change:

  1. Choose your friends wisely: First and foremost, some of the people in your social network may be bringing you down. Either inspire them, or stay clear of them while you are striving toward your fitness goals.
  2. Create a fitness group chat: My friends and I created a Whatsapp group chat called Fitches [AKA Fit B*tches] to motivate each other. We inspire each other to try new ways of working out and healthy eating and post pictures regularly.
  3. Use the buddy system: Working out with a friend keeps us motivated and accountable. Have a designated fitness buddy to help you complete your workouts throughout the week. Schedule them in and commit. You don’t want to let your buddy down.
  4. Use social media to gain inspiration: MapmyFitness, Nike Running Club, and other applications have social networks that allow us to connect and inspire one another through mutual fitness pursuits. Similarly, Instagram and Twitter have inspiring fitness and food related personalities and groups you may follow.
  5. Cook at home with your friends and family: Eating in is always healthier. Introducing new recipes and a variety of healthy food in your diet will keep you motivated.
  6. Commit a weekend to a wellness retreat: Instead of indulging over the weekend, create a mini healthy stay-cation by cooking healthy food and engaging in active pursuits such as going on a hike. You will feel refreshed and ready to take on the week when Monday rolls around.

- Jacqueline Perreault [pictured] is the Corporate Wellness Director for Colonial Medical Insurance.

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  1. Elsa says:

    Cant stand the tedium, narcissism and vanity of the new age fitness industry.