Research and Mayo Clinic's clinical experience suggest that the health decisions of your social circle can greatly influence your health behaviors. If your group is health-oriented — your co-workers invite you to walk with them during breaks at work and your friends choose to grill healthy foods — that works in your favor.
The bad news: Negative influences have an impact, too. For instance, do your friends insist on having dinner at all-you-can-eat buffets — where it is challenging to eat healthy? That works against you. In fact, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that a person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a friend who had become obese.
How can you use these social influences to help your health? And how can you prevent negative influences from sabotaging your efforts? Try these ideas.
Examine the eating habits of your social circle: Do your co-workers bring doughnuts for office celebrations? Does your family eat out most days, mainly on unhealthy fast foods? Does dinner with friends often mean overindulging at restaurants with few healthy dishes? Do card games or watching sporting events on TV include high-calorie junk foods, such as chips and dip, chicken wings and brownies?
If yes: You can talk to your friends. Ask them if they would also like to have a healthy lifestyle. Maybe you can support one another in making positive lifestyle changes. If they aren't ready or willing to change, stay focused on your own healthy eating habits. Bring fruit and veggies to the next Super Bowl party so you have a healthy option. Suggest home-cooked meals or nutritious takeout foods to your family.
Consider physical activity: Do outings with family focus on sedentary activities such as going to a movie or ballgame? Do your friends prefer to watch TV or play cards?
If yes: Suggest adding fun physical activity to the mix. Walking with a friend or family member is a great way to have valuable one-on-one conversations. Or, for a group activity, try golfing, hiking, tennis or biking. Remember all physical activity is helpful for weight management.
Assess their support: Do friends scold you for trying something different? Do they encourage you to overeat at social events?
If yes: Ask friends and family to support your healthy choices rather than criticize you if you fall short. They do not have to change, but if they can support you in your journey, you will be grateful for their support. If your friends do encourage you to make positive changes, thank them — and let them know how important their support is to you.
If your social circle still isn't supportive of a positive lifestyle, you can take a different approach.
- Focus on your priorities. Remember, you can't change everyone's actions, but you can change your own. Pick one or two areas in which you'd like to improve.
- Look outside your current group. If your social circle doesn't offer the type of support you need, check into groups designed for just that function. Research shows that weight-loss interventions that provide peer support help people succeed. Consider community groups that focus on weight management. You can also get support from health-care providers, so talk to your dietitian, nurse, physician assistant or physician about support. Many companies now have wellness champion programs, and these can offer support. Don’t overlook the fact that you can also form a support group.
- Lead the way. Don't underestimate your influence in helping others change. Bring healthy treats to work, experiment with healthy recipes at home, and schedule daily walks with co-workers. Everyone benefits when you're a positive presence and role model.
Remember, having a support system is important for long-term success. So either create a support system or take advantage of your support system on your journey to a healthier you.