Circle of Friends Key to Adopting Healthy Habits:
THURSDAY, Dec. 1 (HealthDay News) -- Interested in adopting
healthier habits? You have a better chance of success if you find a
friend with similar traits to share the experience, a new study
Participants paired with others of similar body mass, age,
fitness level and diet preferences were three times as likely to
adopt healthy behaviors as those matched randomly in an
Internet-based study conducted by a researcher from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
"I think the reality is, we as individuals may have less motivation to change on our own than if we're surrounded by our peer group, even if we met on a social network site," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., who is familiar with the study. "We're very influenced by the group phenomenon."
The study is published in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal
For the study, an online social network was created to promote
health and fitness. Broken into small groups of "health buddies,"
710 participants were introduced to the idea of an online diet
diary through a "dummy" participant who invited others to take
part. Each participant was provided with a personalized, online
"health dashboard" that displayed real-time information, such as
daily exercise minutes, healthy behaviors and personal
characteristics of the health buddies.
At the end of seven weeks, those who were matched with health
buddies using the principle of "homophily" -- the tendency of
people to have similar friends -- were far more likely to use the
diet diary and take part in other healthy behaviors than
participants whose buddies were assigned randomly. Not one obese
individual signed up for the diet diary in the random networks,
compared to more than 12 percent of obese participants in the
similarly matched networks.
The results also suggest that the most effective social
environment for increasing the willingness of obese people to adopt
a behavior is one where they interact with others with similar
health characteristics, the study said.
"I think it was a pretty brilliant study," said Tricia M. Leahey, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Miriam Hospital's Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence. "It's neat that they're actually starting to manipulate a social network in a way specific to homophily."
Group therapy is also partially based on the premise that people
can empathize better with others they relate to, said Dr. Alan
Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New
"The question of whether people can benefit from role models that show how to move out of similar thinking is also part and parcel of the development of social networks," Manevitz said. "We all need to be able to interact with people who can promote other senses of self, that you can take in and create within yourself."
However, the current findings refute prior research. Leahey
wrote a study published in January 2011 that indicated that
overweight people tend to have more social contacts who are also
overweight or obese.
"We can say, 'Gee, if I'm in a network of relatively healthy individuals and become friends with someone who's overweight or obese, we might be influenced by this one individual,'" she said. "So I guess it cuts both ways."
But Leahey said she has observed results similar to the new
study in "Shape Up RI," a statewide initiative in Rhode Island that
draws friends, family members and coworkers into teams to increase
exercise, family meals, fruit and vegetable consumption and reduce
screen time. The program has shown that group support can become a
powerful driver of healthy behaviors, she said.
Ideally, Fornari and Leahey said, the findings should spur other
statewide or public programs promoting healthy lifestyles either in
person or on Internet-based social networks.
"Certainly, that would be an exciting opportunity and I know that more and more educational opportunities will be web-based," Fornari said.
For more about healthy behaviors, see the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.