Healthy Behavior is Contagious

It is widely known that social behaviors, such as eating and exercise habits, influence an individual positively or negatively. This study explored the possibility of such a relation between community beliefs and a woman’s choice of exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet. The results showed that with or without support from society, a woman chose to exercise regularly and eat well if her community set such a precedent. The authors concluded, “Intervention strategies aimed at promoting physical activity and healthy eating could incorporate strategies aimed at modifying social norms relating to these behaviors.”

Studies have shown that “social norms–the standards against which the appropriateness of a certain behavior is assessed–have been described as comprising among the least visible, yet most powerful, forms of social control over human behavior.” However, there have been very few studies that investigated whether social support, as well as social norms, help an individual choose healthy behaviors. This study was undertaken to examine the influence of social norms on dietary choices and physical activities such as exercising, while taking into account the social support provided to the individual through studying the responses of participants in a survey.

•    For the Resilience for Eating and Activity Despite Inequality (READI) study a total of 3,610 women ranging from 18 to 46 years of age were included in the study. These women belonged to 40 urban areas and 40 rural areas.
•    All women were asked to answer a questionnaire regarding their exercise routine (if any) and other activities along with their dietary patterns.
•    Social norms were described as what the women supposed their neighbors and acquaintances did with respect to exercise and diet.
•    Social support for exercising was identified as the frequency of the women’s family members exercising with them or encouraging them to work out. Similarly, social support regarding sensible eating included the number of times the participants’ family ate healthy foods along with them or encouraged them to consume healthy foods and dissuaded them from eating junk food.

•    Results showed that women who did not see people around them exercising exercised less during their leisure time, compared to those who saw their neighbors exercising.
•    Similar trends were seen in women who saw their neighbors walking. These trends did not differ, with or without family support, with regard to exercising more often.
•    Consumption of unhealthy fast food was also seen more among women who saw their neighbors and peers eating unhealthy food, irrespective of the family support.
•    Similar trends were seen in the consumption of sodas and fruits and vegetables.

Next steps/shortcomings
One of the shortcomings of the study was that it did not observe if social norms affected social support significantly. This could have affected the results. Researchers speculate that further studies that explore these interconnected relationships between norms and support could explain the results better. The self-reporting nature of the survey might have been another limitation. Moreover, many questions in the questionnaire asked about social norms as relative to “other women.” If it had been with respect to other people generally, there might have been a difference in the responses.

The authors conclude that the “present results demonstrate the potential importance of social norms as a predictor of particular physical activity and eating behaviors.” Taking this into consideration could help in planning social measures to help stop the growing burden of obesity in society. This study also found that social support from family and friends, along with social norms, helps in choosing a healthier lifestyle. This could mean that upon observing others choosing healthy options and when given encouragement, one may adopt healthy lifestyle choices like exercising and walking more, eating more fruits and vegetables and choosing less unhealthy food and beverages.

For More Information:
Is Healthy Behavior Contagious?
Publication Journal: International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
By Kylie Ball, Robert W. Jeffery; Deakin University, Australia and the University of Minnesota

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.