Friends may have our backs, but their health and fitness habits can literally shape our backsides. How do friends help—or hurt—your healthy habits? Learn more from Martina M. Cartwright, PhD, RD, adjunct faculty member at the University of Arizona, independent biomedical consultant, author and nutrition counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The desire to copy people close to us is thought to enhance bonding and act as a social superglue (Lakin 2003). When we mimic each other’s eating behaviors, we form positive, subconscious bonds with our dining companions. What people do, rather than what they think, may be why obesity flourishes among friends.
The average person makes over 200 food decisions every day (Wansink 2006). Deciding what and where to eat are just two pieces of the dining puzzle—the other is with whom. Commiserating with pals or engaging in animated conversation over a tasty meal is often good therapy, but it can lead to distracted dining. Focusing on the conversation rather than the food often results in overeating (Hetherington 2006; Wansink 2006). Also, those who eat together subconsciously model each other’s eating styles. Normally light eaters consume more when munching with a group, while heavier eaters eat less when dining with companions (Bell & Pliner 2003). If you want to lose weight, you may find it easier if you hang out with friends who eat healthfully and exercise.
Motivating yourself to exercise can be challenging. Did you know that nonexercisers are more likely to get moving and stick with activity programs if supportive friends are involved? As a whole, social influence is positively associated with exercise behaviors, intentions and attitudes. Gabriele et al. (2005) explored social encouragement, which focused on positive reinforcement and statements such as “people important to me encourage me to exercise.” Positive social encouragement like this improved exercise motivation, but social constraint or negative reinforcement reflected in statements like “people will be disappointed in me if I quit exercising” were not helpful. Surrounding yourself with positive pals may keep you moving in the right direction.