Everyone knows that you are what you eat. But what if you actually are what your friends eat? What if obesity was not hereditary, but contagious? Sure, it's easier to blame your parents for that sort of thing. After all, why wouldn't the size of your hips be the result of bad genes? But a few years ago, two scientists published an extensive study of 12,067 people in the New England Journal of Medicine that seems to prove that we are directly affected by the habits of others.
Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler theorized that weight gain in an individual is associated with weight gain in his or her siblings, spouse, and neighbors. The phenomenon is called a "contagion" and can be described as a kind of social virus that is transmitted by proximity. It seems a person is 57 percent more likely to become obese if they have a friend who becomes obese. If a sibling becomes obese, the other sibling has a 47 percent increased chance of having the same thing happen to them. And a person has a 37 percent chance of serious weight gain if their spouse starts tipping the scales. No one is exactly sure how it occurs, but our social environment seems to infect us, and we in turn, spread it.
Yes, you read it right. It seems weight gain and the flu have a lot in common, except Walgreens® isn't doling out shots to keep you thin. Many public health leaders, including the National Institute of Health, now believe that this growing science of social networks can be used to improve health on a huge scale. By either creating new social networks, like a dieting group, or by influencing the leaders of already-existing health-related groups such as the Team Beachbody® Message Boards, positive health messages will become contagious. But how can we affect those we care about, and not be affected by unhealthy behaviors?
"Be the change you want to see in the world." —Mahatma Gandhi
The first thing we can do is be an example. You're reading this newsletter, so you already have some interest in your health. It's more than likely you're also on a kick-butt exercise and nutrition program that's altering your appearance. You're already creating the change in yourself, and that will, in turn, have an effect on others. If you want to make a real difference, stay on the path. It is quite easy to reach our goals, only to let them slip away over an extended vacation, holiday season, or traumatic event like a breakup. What this says to an outsider is: "If Tom couldn't keep the weight off, how is there any hope for me? Why even bother?" If you want to inspire others, continue to be an inspiration.
"The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own." —Benjamin Disraeli
Who really has time to talk anymore? We have emails, IMs, and text messages that have pretty much replaced verbal communication. We're all running around trying to accomplish things, which will fall behind schedule if we meet someone for coffee. Yet, sometimes just talking to people about their health and encouraging them to change can be the difference between being healthy and having a lifelong struggle with obesity. You've gone from a size 8 to a size 4, or from a beer gut to a six-pack. People around you will most likely ask how the heck you did it. When they do, ask them to grab a nonfat latte and sit down, because you have something to share with them.
"Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher." —Oprah Winfrey
Removing yourself from every situation that has unhealthy people in it is impossible and unnecessary. We're all tied into our friendships, jobs, and families by many threads, most of which we couldn't sever if we wanted to. You know your best friend from junior high would hunt you down if you moved to a small island off the coast of Madagascar. So instead of losing your relationships, make it a point to tip the scales and add a few more. Finding like-minded people—be it at a gym, a cooking class, a yoga studio, a fitness retreat, or a well-known local hiking spot—can open you up to new ideas and new positive influences. As your resolve becomes strengthened by your new friendships, you will be that much more able to assist your more established friendships.
"Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared." —Buddha
If you truly want to create a change in the health of others, there are thousands of programs out there that need volunteers. From the national organizations designed to raise money for diseases, to the local car wash that supports the high school athletic program, there's always someone who could use your assistance. Or better yet, create your own network of people making a difference, in whatever way you feel driven. Organize that 10k to benefit the YMCA, petition your state school board to increase physical education and remove vending machines full of sugar from your schools, or create a foundation to bring food to famine-stricken parts of the world. Making a big difference in the health of others can begin with one person, and it could be you.
Why we are so susceptible to the influences of others remains a mystery. From the time we are babies, we learn to mimic gestures and language. As adults, we still mimic yawns, laughs, and often aggression, as the mob after a recent NBA playoffs game proved. And now it seems we can mimic weight gain or loss, along a host of other behaviors. Before getting swept up in the crowd, take a moment and decide what you want for your life. You can choose your own destiny, and maybe help shape the lives of others in the process.
- Christakis, N. A. and J. H. Fowler,. "The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years." New England Journal of Medicine 357 (July 26, 2007): 370-379.
- Eric Jaffe, "The 'contagion' of social networks," Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/13/health/la-he-social-networks-health-20100913
- Clive Thompson, "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?" New York Times, September 10, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/magazine/13contagion-t.html
- R. William Doherty, "Emotional Contagion and Social Judgment," Motivation and Emotion 22, No. 3 (1998), 1-2.