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How Your Friends Impact Your Health – The Key to Lasting Change


This past weekend I was sitting down and talking about a joint client with my colleague Dr. Rachelle Robinson. As many of you know, Dr. Rachelle is a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders and behavior and is a master at getting people unstuck.  She and I work together with many clients who have found themselves trapped in a dieting cycle and want to break free.

I was sharing my experience with this client who was making changes but not nearly enough to see the results that she wanted. Things would seem to click when we were in session but when she left her perspective shifted and she would quickly fall back into old habits.  The hardest part was she was putting legitimate effort into her exercise and nutrition but then getting wrapped up in social situations and other people’s behaviors.  So, she was doing a lot of hard work but not seeing any results.

Dr. Rachelle was quick to point out that her social network was making her changes an uphill battle.  I pushed back on this idea because she really did have a lot of support.  Her husband was willing to do whatever she wanted, and her friends always respected whatever she ate, although didn’t always follow her lead.  Dr. Rachelle was quick to point out that even though they were supportive the changes that she is trying to make is still at odds with their natural behavior and making it a lot of effort on her end.

I took a step back and thought about my own life.  Over the past decade I have had two pretty big shifts in my nutrition and lifestyle.  The first one was about 10 years ago.  It’s important to note that I have been in practice for 12 years and started working on my nutrition around 14-15 years ago. So 10 years ago I was already in the nutrition industry and had made some significant changes to the way that I ate.

But I gotta tell you, it was a lot of work.

A constant push back and negotiation between wanting to take care of myself but also be part of the group. Sometimes I succeeded and other times it didn’t seem worth the effort, so I just went with the flow. Around the same time, I began to expand my social network and found people that had similar interests and goals.  With them the nutritional and behavioral changes were normal and seemed almost effortless.

About a year and a half ago I made a change to my exercise program. Part of my success was finding something I enjoy, but the most significant part was finding people to enjoy it with.  A group that treats exercise more like play and a time for fun and connection.  Again, making the change feel almost effortless.

There has been a lot of research about the influence of our social networks.  It has shown that if a friend becomes obese your risk of obesity rises by 57%.  Although there are a number of factors that contribute to this number, the most powerful one is that their weight gain becomes normalized, so you don’t start to notice your own.

So if weight is a symptom of behavior, another way of looking at this is that the behaviors that led them to gain weight become normalized and you begin to adapt them without even noticing them.  You have a new normal.

The most amazing thing about the power of social networks is that they work both ways.  This means that if the people around you can have a negative effect on your weight, health and happiness without you noticing – they can also have a positive effect! 

So what do you do with this information?  Should you ditch all of your friends and family?  Absolutely not!  Instead focus on expanding your network and adding healthy influencers.

I would venture to guess that you already have these people in your life.  Perhaps it is the co-worker that you really only see at the holiday party but is always so positive or the girl in your spin class that just seems kinda cool.  I would engage these people.  Ask them to go for a walk or out for coffee.  See if they could potentially be a healthy addition to your social network.

To be clear, the ultimate responsibility for change is still yours. This is not about blame or passing the buck.  However, the people you spend most of your time with have a significant impact on your attitude, your happiness and your growth as a person. So if your goal is to make positive and lasting changes paying attention to those you surround yourself with will have as much of an impact on your health as adding in more fruits and vegetables.  Perhaps even more…but don’t tell your nutritionist I said that;)

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