Healthy Habits Are Contagious

Unfortunately, research shows that unhealthy habits love company, too

I am very grateful for my friends. In particular, I’m glad that they prefer restaurants with roasted Brussels sprouts and monkfish on the menu, as opposed to ones that serve bloomin’ onions and deep-fried everything. For the same reason, I am also grateful for my TiVo, which allows me to fast forward through commercials for all the junk food I might otherwise crave. I am way too easily influenced by others’ behaviors. If someone is chowing down on a half-rack of ribs, I will want it, too. I once had a live-in boyfriend who ate nachos, washed back with Coke, for breakfast. I made fun of him until it became my breakfast of choice, too.

So I wasn’t surprised to see a study this week that shows hanging out with healthy friends may be the best way to stay fit. It did, however, make me feel better to think perhaps I’m not the only one in the universe who is so weak-willed. The research, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, found that our exercise and eating habits are strongly influenced by the people we spend the most time with. If you live on a street where all of your neighbors venture out for a daily jaunt, you are more likely to walk, too. Likewise, if you have coworkers who eat fast food every day, your chances of eating burgers and fries for lunch also climbs. For that reason (along with many others), I am so glad I work at home. I never saw my coworkers pass up the homemade brownies, birthday cakes and cookies that seemed to circulate all year long. Not that I’m judging. I was often the first person to reach into the candy dish -- thus likely influencing a bunch of other would-be good eaters to do the same.

For the study, researchers asked 3,610 women between the ages of 18 and 46 to complete a survey that assessed their own level of activity, eating habits and risk of obesity. They then asked them to what degree they agreed with a number of statements like, “Lots of women I know walk or cycle,” “lots of women I know drink soft drinks often” and “lots of women I know eat healthy food when they are out.” The results showed that the habits of the people they spend time with most closely reflected their own.

While I have since kicked that nacho-loving boyfriend to the curb -- and those eating habits with it, I am instead married to a man with an insatiable sweet tooth. Luckily, he would rather eat whatever’s in the house than set foot in a supermarket. Though that may sound like every woman’s nightmare -- I am, after all, then forced to do all the grocery shopping -- it allows me to keep all of the junk I would go hog wild on out of our kitchen. Every now and then, my husband will venture into the corner deli and bring home a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, which we will both eat until it’s gone. Not the most healthful of habits, to be sure, but with all of the vegetables I force my husband to eat each week, I like to think that it all balances out.

What healthy or unhealthy habits have you “caught” from your friends, significant other or coworkers? Chime in below.

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