Say you’re out to lunch with girlfriends, and craving a burger but everyone orders a salad—would you order a salad too? A study published last in BioMed Central’s open access International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggests you would.
Kylie Ball, associate professor at Deakin University’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Science, worked with a team of researchers to survey 3,610 Australian women. The women, ages 18-46, were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I often see other people walking in my neighborhood” and “Lots of women I know eat fast food often.”
What the team of researchers found is that physical activity and healthy eating behavior are both strongly affected by social norms. The most surprising finding was that simply knowing or observing other women being active and eating well—not only close friends or family, but also strangers in the neighborhood—predicted an increased likelihood that women themselves would engage in these behaviors, Ball said in an email.
The study is one of the first to show that simply observing others is associated with health-promoting behaviors, she said.
This makes sense to Megan Sullivan, training program manager at Chicago Area Runners Association. Sullivan said a popular reason Chicagoans get involved with the runners association is they’re searching for a way to be healthier. When they see races going on and people seem to be pretty happy and having a good time doing them, that’s what leads people to join, she said.
As a competitive runner herself, Sullivan said training with others helps keep her motivated. “In order to get to the next level, you have to have a group setting to push yourself there,” she said.
While the study didn’t specifically address whether exercising in groups has an impact on the likelihood that a woman exercises at all, there is something to that, Ball said. “The social support and contact that comes from exercising with others can be a very powerful form of motivation for some women,” she said.
But, that’s not a motivating factor for all women. April Sutton, 23, Bally’s personal trainer, said, “What other people do really doesn’t motivate me, when I set a goal, that’s what motives me.” Sutton said the people in her social circle are fit, but not the most health conscious. “They’re trainers, so that’s what they do,” Sutton said. For them, it’s more of a job necessity, than a lifestyle choice, she said. Sutton said she works out and eats well because of health history, not because of social norms.
Women like Sutton are the exception. The study found that healthy behavior is contagious, and the opposite is also true, according to Ball. “Our findings showed that women who less often see others being health-conscious are themselves less likely to be active or eat healthily,” she said. So ladies, how fit you are may depend on your friends.
But is the same true for men? “We can only speculate but there is some evidence that social influences like these are more potent for women than for men,” Ball said. “However that’s a question for another study.”