In reality, though, our personal health and fitness are being constantly influenced by a vast array of social and cultural factors, by our circle of friends and colleagues, and perhaps most particularly, by our family.
A large and well-publicized study recently reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (Volume 357: 370–379) draws attention to the fact that obesity tends to spread through social networks, and that our likelihood of becoming obese is influenced quite significantly by whether our spouse, adult siblings or close friends become obese.
The study observes that this dynamic may be due to a variety of mechanisms (from behavior emulation to increased tolerance and perceived acceptability of obesity within social circles), but the authors ultimately conclude that “People are connected, and so their health is connected.”
This is so obviously true that one has to wonder: Why is it so easy for us to forget? I think part of the reason is that marketing and advertising (which heavily influence our perception of reality) are generally aimed at individuals making individual choices. Ads tell us, “Here’s the solution to your problem.” They very rarely reflect back to us the ways that our daily challenges and choices are influenced by other people and by the culture in which we live.
And yet, as a matter of course, virtually all of our daily choices — from the types of foods made available to us where we live, work and play, to the types of activities in which we do or do not engage — are at least in part shaped by our social environment.
A lot of it comes down to behavioral norms we rarely stop to evaluate. Do we typically connect with friends over drinks and chicken wings at a so-called sports bar, or do we play actual sports? As a family, do we make dinner together and sit down at the table to eat, or do we order in and gather around the TV? During times of stress, do we reach out to each other for counsel and comfort, or do we scatter to soothe ourselves with food and other numbing distractions?
All of these things — along with shared ideologies of what we agree to think of as “fun,” “boring,” “relaxing,” “hard” or “exciting” — can make a huge difference in how we operate on a daily basis, and, ultimately, in how we live. By extension of course, they can make a huge difference in the kind of health and fitness we enjoy.
Of course, this is not to say we cannot determine our own health-and-fitness fate. We can, and we must. But I would argue that part of making our own way involves taking a long hard look at the social and environmental influences that may be making our best choices far more difficult than they have to be. It involves identifying and actively adjusting the patterns that aren’t really working for us — including those that involve other people, and the patterns we are helping to create for others without even realizing it.
In this issue of Experience Life, we pay homage to the power of the group effort and to the phenomenal opportunity we have to support each other in shifting both our family traditions and broader social norms in healthier and more empowering directions.
If you haven’t already, consider sitting down with your family — or a group of close friends — to distill a shared vision for how you want to live and for the ways you’d like to be healthier. Toss around ideas for how you can support each other in making healthier choices easier and more fun. Then give those ideas a try.
You may be surprised to discover that shifting norms isn’t nearly as difficult as you might have anticipated, and that pulling together with people you care about is a whole lot more rewarding than the tug and struggle of going it alone.