Your Social Network and Your Health

Reviewed Nov 17, 2015

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Summary

Research has shown that if we spend time with trusted friends or family members who are also making healthy lifestyle changes, we will be more likely to achieve our own healthy lifestyle goals.


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Is good health contagious? Are we influenced by people we spend time with or communicate with on a regular basis? Absolutely! Research confirms that our modifiable health behaviors—which include diet, exercise, sleep, recreation, relaxation, etc.—are influenced by the habits and behavior of our friends, spouse and family members.

We are likely to be happy to the degree that our friends or spouses are happy and we are likely to become happier as they dor. The same appears to be true with our health status. The behaviors and norms of the group spread throughout a network of people influenced by the nature of their relationships whether spouses, friends, or neighbors and that the nature of these health effects are surprisingly powerful. The bottom line: to be healthy, choose to be around healthy people!

Think about one close relationship: marriage. When people marry, their habits (healthy and unhealthy) become more alike. The obvious reason is lifestyle. Married people spend more time together, doing similar things. So, their interests, diet and activities usually begin to merge. Bottom line—the habits and hang-ups of one spouse have a dramatic effect on the other.

One recent magazine article revealed that if one spouse quits smoking, the other is 6-8 times more likely to quit as well. Similar links were also found with other behaviors such as alcohol use and activity levels. According to research at the Mayo Clinic, having close, dependable friends has far-reaching benefits for your physical and mental health. Why? Because good friends have similar interests, enjoy being together and provide comfort and support in difficult times.

In addition, several studies report fewer colds, lower blood pressure and lower heart rates in people with strong social ties. Other research has shown that marriage, perhaps the strongest tie, adds years to life expectancy. When people feel a sense of belonging, rates for suicide, mental illness and alcoholism are much lower.

If our closest relationships have the most influence on our health, it would make good sense to ask:

  • Are my health habits having a positive or negative effect on my family and friends?
  • Which unhealthy habits of mine are influencing others?
  • Which unhealthy habits of others are influencing my health choices?
  • Who has the most influence on my health habits?
  • What one thing would I like to change regarding the health habits of someone close to me?
  • What health habits would I change in myself if I had the support and encouragement of someone close to me?

If you are like many people, you don’t exercise or sleep nearly enough, you overeat and you weigh too much. Moreover, you are painfully aware of these truths but have lacked the desire or perhaps the motivation to change, or you have struggled with making them lasting changes. Obviously, you are not alone. So, to improve your health, you might try to associate with more health-minded people. Or you could invite a friend, spouse or family member to join you in making a healthy lifestyle change.

Maybe you’ve resolved to lose weight or quit smoking or start a walking program, but you haven’t been successful in sticking with it. It’s tough to make significant changes alone, especially when your environment doesn’t change. A new more powerful approach may be to take the best of the science of individual behavior change and marry that to social networking to engage the power of the group. What we won’t do on our own, like go to the gym or eat healthy food, we are much more likely to do when we are being held accountable by our friends, family and co-workers.

Talk with your spouse, a friend or a family member about your health concerns. What are some areas where you both would like to make some improvements - maybe eating healthier, increasing your exercise, or cutting out particular types of food such as sweets or fried foods. Ask your spouse, friend or neighbor if they are willing to begin making some lifestyle changes with you. For example, you might take a brisk walk together or go to a fitness center 3-4 times per week. It is important to start with goals that are realistic. You will not be able to run a marathon or lift a ton of weight your first time out, but maybe you could work up to walking or running a mile in the first month or adding five pounds on your initial weight lifting exercises. As your body gets accustomed to the routine, you will see results.

Make a deal with your spouse to replace at least one unhealthy food choice with a healthy one. For example, you might say to each other: “We will give up ice cream for dessert and have fresh fruit instead.” Once you have achieved one goal successfully you will feel more confident to move on to achieve another goal.

If you haven’t been in to see your doctor for a routine physical exam and blood work, make that appointment today! Knowing your cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels and body mass index may motivate you to make serious lifestyle changes. Once you have this information, you can monitor your progress and collaborate with friends on finding healthy, satisfying snacks or identifying realistic exercise tips. Use online tools that allow you to track your weight, cholesterol, your food intake, and your approximate calories burned. Seeing progress is very motivational and reminds you of plateaus you may have overcome in the past and can overcome again.

Ask a co-worker to walk with you during lunch or go to the fitness center after work. As each step to a healthier you becomes part of your regular routine, it will be as typical as brushing your teeth.

If you have children, initiate healthy activities such as bike riding, swimming or playing catch. Setting limits on the number of hours per day children can watch television or play sedentary video games is an important step as well. Also remember, your children will model your behaviors.

The evidence is clear: The company we keep influences our health. Making healthier lifestyle choices may start by associating with healthy people, or helping those around us become healthier too. Whether they are face-to-face or virtual, social networks influence human behavior and shape everything from finances to fitness. Start by asking yourself, "Are my health habits having a positive or negative effect on my family and friends? What steps can I take to help myself, as well as my friends and family?"

You and your family have access to trained counselors and professionals who will provide confidential assistance. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please contact a representative at the toll-free number on this Web site for additional assistance.

 

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By Drew Edwards, EdD, MS ©2010 Beacon Health Options Source: "Social Influence in Health." Thomas A. Wills, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, National Cancer Institute, http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/BRP/constructs/social_influence/index.html; N.A. Christakis. (2004) "Social Networks and Collateral Health Effects Have Been Ignored in Medical Care and Clinical Trials, But Need to Be Studied," British Medical Journal, 329:184-185.; N.A. Christakis and J. Fowler. (2007) "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 Years," The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 357(4):370-379. "In Sickness and in Health," by Rebecca Webber. Psychology Today. November/December 2008.

The information provided on the Achieve Solutions site, including, but not limited to, articles, quizzes and other general information, is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical or health care advice. Nothing contained on the Achieve Solutions site is intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment or as a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care professional. Please direct questions regarding the operation of the Achieve Solutions site to Web Feedback. If you have concerns about your health, please contact your health care provider.  ©2017 Beacon Health Options, Inc.

 

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