In the pursuit of optimal health and body composition, many are well aware of the traditional foundations of fitness: the ideal diet and exercise plan. It may appear that this approach would be the most simple and straightforward way to create optimal health and body composition.
However, new research finds support for a more holistic perspective on health and fitness, one that goes beyond the standard model of health as merely a matter of biology.
What perspective? Your social networks – and not just your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; we’re talking about your old-school social network, too: you, in real life, connected to other people you know.
This alternative perspective is known as the biopsychosocial model, and it takes into account the role of psychological, emotional, and social variables in determining health. This research suggests that there is no such thing as total body health in an unhealthy psychological, emotional, or social environment.
If your primary goal is to focus on how to become more physically strong, it may seem irrelevant or beyond the scope of physical fitness and body composition to consider the role of your thoughts, emotions, and social environment. However, many scholars find that health behaviors are inextricably linked with psychological, emotional, and social factors.
For those that have experienced the immobilizing consequences of psychological hardships like depression or anxiety, the relationship between psychology and health may be more tangible. But, is it possible that your friends and social networks can also transform your overall physical health? The answer is: YES.
In fact, decades of research demonstrate the many ways that your social environment can influence your physical health.
In other words, despite your greatest intentions for leading a healthy lifestyle, engaging in an optimal exercise program and curating a well-balanced diet of whole foods, failure to consider the influence of your social environments may be sabotaging your fitness success.
Researchers studying the relationship between social interactions, social networks, and physical health have found that your immediate friends, family, colleagues, role models, and social support networks all have the power to significantly encourage or thwart fitness progress. How can this be?
Here are five ways that your social networks can sculpt your overall fitness.
1. Friends, family, and colleagues can set the bar for health goals and behaviors
Unbeknownst to you, many of your personal health goals and accomplishments are based on and measured in comparison to the health goals and accomplishments of others. This natural tendency to compare yourself to others may be more apparent with the influx of social media, where it is now possible to “follow” the lives of major athletes and competitors.
Similarly, your personal health goals and behaviors are also influenced by “perceived norms” or what you assume to be the typical health habits of your friends and colleagues.
Perhaps you have noticed that when a close friend in your social network begins to make serious progress and physical changes, you are reminded of the success that is possible for your own goals and you may be encouraged to refocus on your goals and make greater strides towards wellness. As such, your social networks and fitness exemplars can become an inspiration to level up on your personal fitness goals.
Of course, this tendency for self-comparison can be detrimental if you set unrealistic fitness goals based on others. This merely demonstrates the power of social comparison in shaping how you view yourself. However, when executed with caution to set realistic goals, social comparison can be a great way to naturally motivate yourself and become inspired by those around you.
2. Social support protects the body from negative consequences of stress
As stated in an earlier blog post, stress threatens healthy body composition by releasing cortisol, which can reduce levels of testosterone and growth hormone, thereby inhibiting muscle building and impacting fat levels.
Cortisol is released in the body as a response to stress, and studies find that the body is particularly likely to release excessive cortisol in the face of social or evaluative stress, like during a job interview or an unfamiliar social context.
Whereas stress is a natural response to environmental threats, shared by all animals, social stress can place a major strain on the human body. Experiences like rejection, social isolation, or loneliness can be physically weakening.
Another reason why social support can be crucial in times of stress is that stress is linked with weight gain in adults. Due largely to the release of cortisol, high levels of stress can prompt fluctuations in weight and increased abdominal fat. Taken together, these studies reveal importance of self-care to buffer against the negative effects of stress on the body.
Maybe you have found that you intuitively want reach out to friends and family during stressful times, but chances are, you probably did not realize the protective power that these social bonds have for your health. Often, people underestimate the importance of these social connections; and when life gets hectic, it is easy to prioritize work and other obligations over social bonding time.
However, this research suggests that taking some time to meet a friend or call a loved one can be just as important as hitting the gym to protect against muscle loss or increased abdominal fat, as these social interactions are protective against the physically weakening effect of stress on the body.
3. Fitness behaviors (or lack thereof) can be contagious
Decades of research find that the likelihood that you will begin and sustain engaging in health behaviors can be predicted by how prominent those behaviors are in your social network. Even when it comes to major health outcomes like obesity, cardiovascular disease, and smoking behaviors, social networks can predict your personal health behavior.
Perhaps you can identify a time in your own life when you have experienced the power of social contagion, by unconsciously adopting the behaviors of others. For example, imagine that you start drinking lavish, high-calorie blended coffee beverages every day at work simply because the majority of your colleagues do the same, and the daily “coffee run” has become a social tradition your office.
Or you take to joining your close friends at social gatherings for their regular smoke breaks, because the experience of chatting outdoors with friends is enjoyable.
The good news is that you can also use the power of social contagion to your favor, as healthy behaviors can also be contagious in social situations. For example, you are more likely to start running every morning if you have a running partner, or to abstain from alcohol if your friends host alcohol-free gatherings.
4. Close social networks make it easier to stick to health goals
Studies find that people placed in tightly knit, supportive social networks are much more likely to stick to their health goals, compared to people placed in groups that are less interconnected. This study finds that a sense of personal connection is crucial to determining the power of a social network.
Taken together, this research suggests that it’s not just important to find a social network of people that share similar health goals and help to motivate you, but social connection is key. The persuasive power of a social network is more robust when your social networks provide close bonds among a cohesive group of members.
5. The presence of other people makes goals appear more attainable
Finally, studies demonstrate that the presence of another person can influence perceptions of how difficult a physical task appears. This phenomenon has been examined across multiple studies, in a number of contexts, but the classic study asks people to estimate the steepness of a hill.
This study examined two groups of either single individuals or individuals accompanied by a friend. Each individual was asked to visually assess, by making a visual assessment, how difficult they thought a particular challenge would be – in this study, the steepness of a hill.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not), participants who were accompanied by a friend tended to report that the hill appeared to be less steep and daunting, compared to those who faced the hill alone.This study suggests that pairing up with someone while doing physically strenuous tasks can help lessen the burden and make goals feel more attainable.
So, next time you are facing that laborious cardio session or the most strenuous part of your workout, remember that the dreaded part of your physical exercise can become more approachable when you have a friend by your side.
Networking for Optimal Fitness
Just as it is more challenging to find a healthy meal of whole foods in a fast food joint, it is also more difficult to meet goals for fitness and body composition in an unsupportive social environment.
Limiting your health focus to diet and exercise is as blind-sighted as a doctor that conducts cardiovascular surgery without any recommendations to cut the fat, salt, and inactivity from their patient’s life.
Careful consideration of the ways that your own social networks may be aiding or thwarting your health, together with the traditional efforts to manage exercise, diet, and lifestyle behaviors can enable you to more fully utilize the resources that are available to you to stay motivated, committed, and engaged in your fitness goals.
These new insights empower you to take on a more holistic view, using the influence of your social networks to ultimately facilitate greater success in the pursuit of optimal fitness and body composition.
Dr. Arezou Ghane is a health psychologist, yoga instructor (E-RYT 200), and founder of Auteur Health and Wellness. Her work bridges the science of psychology and creative movement to promote mental and physical wellbeing via individual coaching, wellness education workshops, and wellness retreats.