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Can you blame your friends for your health habits?

How much do you look to others when motivating yourself to exercise and eat a healthy diet?

Your perception of what counts as a ‘normal’ amount of physical activity, or a ‘normal’ amount of fast food consumption, is likely to vary depending on your environment. So how much does what you think counts as ‘normal’ actually impact your own behaviour?

Researchers have found that especially for women, what others around you are doing really counts.

‘Social norms comprise among the least visible, yet potentially most powerful, forms of social control over human behaviour,’ says Alfred Deakin Professor Kylie Ball of Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN).

A study she led of more than 3500 women across Victoria found that ‘women who knew, or saw, lots of other women exercising, or eating healthily, tended to be more physically active and to eat well themselves, compared with women who didn’t see lots of others engaging in these behaviours.’

‘We found that this wasn’t just because their peers or family encouraged them to do so – we took that into account,’ Prof. Ball adds.

Rather, the researchers have two potential explanations for these findings:

  • that ‘like attracts like’ – that is, women may tend to gravitate towards others who share similar values or behaviours to their own
  • that health promoting behaviours may in a sense be ‘contagious’ – that is, you see other people being active, or eating well, therefore you adopt the same behaviours, possibly because you see these as ‘the norm’.

The second of these two findings is perhaps the most intriguing – and could hold the key to tackling some bigger issues such as the obesity epidemic.

The wider impact on obesity

This idea that obesity may be ‘contagious’ has been backed up by other studies. For example, one study from the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that ‘if a person’s friend became obese, their chances of becoming obese increased by 57%, and if their sibling or spouse became obese the chances rose by around 40%,’ Prof. Ball explains.

Even if obesity isn’t an issue that’s close to home, it can be easy for the habits of your close friends and family to impact your relationship with diet and exercise. If all your friends are wearing activewear and training for their next fun run, you might start thinking about exercising more often than you would if you caught up with them at your local pub trivia night.

'Women who knew, or saw, lots of other women exercising, or eating healthily, tended to be more physically active and to eat well themselves, compared with women who didn’t see lots of others engaging in these behaviours.'

Professor Kylie Ball,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), Deakin University

Prof. Ball suggests the key to tackling big issues like obesity could lie in changing those kind of invisible influences on our perceptions.

Health promoters may be able to boost obesity prevention initiatives by ‘focusing on changing social norms relating to physical activity and healthy eating, to make these behaviours normative and desirable and easy for the majority of the population,’ she explains.

There is some evidence that it could be as simple as showing people photographs or stories of others in their age group being active.

‘Several of our findings were apparent even for women who simply saw others engaging in these behaviours – they did not have to be ‘close’ others,’ Prof. Ball adds.

Tips for changing your ideas of ‘normal’ health behaviours

‘There are lots of possibilities for helping people challenge social norms to create new, healthier definitions of “normal”,’ Prof. Ball says.

How about going for a walk with friends rather than sitting down over lunch or coffee? You could even try this at work by having ‘walking’ meetings with colleagues.

Bringing healthy snacks and lunches and advocating for healthy catering are other ways to positively influence your colleagues. Becoming a role model for healthier eating is important with children, as well as friends, Prof. Ball says. ‘Choose the healthier versions, appropriate portion sizes, and be the first to say no to the less healthy desserts or other options.’

If you’re not currently exposed to others modelling healthy behaviours, you can look for ways to increase that exposure. Social media may be a good way to widen your perceptions, Prof. Ball suggests, although researchers are yet to determine how effective this may be to improving health.

Did you know only 7% of Australians meet the guidelines for what is considered healthy? If you’re passionate about making a real change, find out what it’s really like to be a health promotion officer.

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Professor Kylie Ball
Professor Kylie Ball

Alfred Deakin Professor, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Development, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition(IPAN)

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