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 suggests.
Participants paired with others of similar body mass, age, fitness level and diet preferences were three times as likely to adopt healthy behaviours 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, NY, who is familiar with the study. "We're very influenced by the group phenomenon."
The study is published in the journal Science.
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 personalised, online "health dashboard" that displayed real-time information, such as daily exercise minutes, healthy behaviours 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 behaviours 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% 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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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 empathise better with others they relate to, said Dr Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"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 behaviours, 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.
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