Just how healthy you are may depend on the eating and exercise habits of the people you see around you every day, according to a new study.
The results show healthy behaviors are strongly influenced by social norms within a community or social group.
In fact, social norms, or what people perceive as acceptable behavior, can sway people to eat right and keep fit regardless of whether they receive encouragement to do so from friends and family, the researchers said.
The desire to be accepted may prompt this imitation.
“You want to fit in, so you want to do the things in that other people in your community are doing,” said study researcher Robert Jeffery, of the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.
The results suggest health campaigns aimed at altering social norms — such as advertisements that advocate exercise — may be an effective way to promote healthy behaviors, the researchers said.
“The more information you have out there, the more likely people are to change their perceptions of how important [the behavior] is,” Jeffery said.
Social norms vs. family support
Previous studies have suggested friends can shape our health. For instance, obesity has been shown “spread” between peers. However, much of this earlier work fails to account for social support, which is the advice, assistance and general acclamation from family and friends, the researchers said.
Jeffery and his colleagues examined surveys on health behaviors from 3,610 women between the ages of 18 to 46 living in Australia. To gauge the influence of social norms, they looked at the women's responses to statements such as “I often see other people walking in my neighborhood” and “Lots of women I know eat healthy food when they are out.”
To assess social support, the women were also asked how often members of their families worked out with them and encouraged them to be active and eat low-fat foods.
Women who said they often saw people exercising and walking in their neighborhoods were more likely to exercise and walk themselves. In addition, women who said many people they knew often drank soda and ate fast food were more likely to drink and eat these unhealthy foods and beverages themselves.
These results held true regardless of whether the women received healthy encouragement from family or friends.
Women who said they frequently see others engaging in physical activity and healthy eating behaviors may view these actives as socially desirable, the researchers said. It's also possible that women who practice healthy habits may simply be more likely to come in contact with others who behave in the same way.
The results will be published in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Pass it on: Healthy habits may be contagious. If you see people around you eating well and exercising, you may be more likely to practice these behaviors as well.
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