Health & wellness

Is your social network sabotaging your health?

Let’s say you want to adopt some healthier habits: start biking to work, give up the 300-calorie Starbucks Frappuccinos, quit smoking once and for all. All it takes is a little willpower, right?

Or perhaps you need to take a good hard look at your social network, the friends, family, and co-workers that influence how you eat, spend leisure time, and prioritize what’s important in life. Both good habits and bad can spread like the flu through that circle of your closest connections, and research suggests this network could be the single biggest predictor of your overall state of health.

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“It definitely seems like there’s a contagion effect,” said Miriam Nelson, a Tufts University nutrition professor and author of The Social Network Diet. “Once you move in certain circles, it’s tough to change habits unless you make an effort to join a new network.”

Friends who make friends with others trying to lose weight have a higher likelihood of losing weight themselves -- something Weight Watchers discovered back in the 1960’s.

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Nelson, herself, relied on social networks to get her back to marathon running after having three babies in quick succession. “I hadn’t been active for almost 10 years until Tufts started a marathon team,” she said. She joined in 2003 and has been running with the group weekly. “It got me back on track and kept me there.”

After a landmark 2007 Harvard study found that weight gain in one person was associated with weight gain in friends, siblings, spouse, and neighbors, researchers have been turning their attention to finding effective ways to alter a toxic environment.

“It’s very complicated and not as simple as cutting ties to friends who are gaining weight,” said Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist at Harvard University who conducted the 2007 study. “People tend to have particular fixed desires about what kind of networks to have. You can’t tell a shy person to become more gregarious or vice versa.”

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Nor should we take a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately approach to our peers. “That’s a very American perspective,” Christakis said, “being interested in what others can do for us, not what we can do for others. I think we should flip it and help others in our social network.”

In a recent study called Shape Up Rhode Island, researchers enlisted more than 3,300 Rhode Island residents to join an online support program, forming three or four person teams to help them with weight loss; after 12 weeks, the researchers found that weight loss clustered within teams with the biggest losers tending to be from the same team.

If you’re looking to lose ten pounds or get better control over your diabetes, enlist a friend who’s in the same predicament and join forces. My mother-in-law, who’s a widow, arranged for another friend, also a widow, to start taking daily walks in a nearby park. Each thought she was helping the other one get out of the house and get moving.

Online social networks can also help you find peers looking to shift their health habits. Nelson started a StrongWomen Facebook page to help women connect with other women to discuss their fitness and nutrition goals and share advice on making positive changes.

The website StickK.com, created by two Yale professors, enables you to set a goal, a time commitment for meeting that goal, and a bet that you’ll pay out to a friend if you don’t meet it. You can also enlist an online buddy to be a referee to monitor your progress and get other StickK participants to be your cheering section.

Even Twitter can offer a supportive group of tweeters if you seek them out with specific goal hashtags like #loseweight, #getfit, #quitsmoking and #getmoving; or just follow a Twitter group devoted to overall support.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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