by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
You are who you hang around, so they say. And that includes virtually. Science is discovering how our social interactions and networks affect everything from emotions to body weight …
Interesting discoveries are being made that link obesity and happiness to friendships. We live in a world where constant connection can be managed between friends, regardless of time and place. Yet, these relationships may impact our health as much as — or more– than those in the same household. Although you may share a fridge with your spouse, sibling, or roommate, and even join them in workouts, it seems our outer social circle may better predict our weight loss success.
Statistics to Consider
The Framingham Heart Study found a connection between sibling obesity, where one sibling becoming obese increased the likelihood of another sibling’s obesity by 40 percent. Spouses had a similar affect on each other, with an increase in the possibility of shared obesity by 37 percent. A friend’s obesity had the strongest influence, increasing the chance of sharing this trait with another friend by 57 percent. How does this work? More importantly, how can the link be used to society’s advantage to cultivate healthy individuals?
Obesity cannot be considered “contagious” in the clinical sense. Yet, in a country where two of every three Americans are considered overweight or obese, the epidemic nature begs to discover every connection to create appropriate plans-of-action. The abundance of processed and fast food, high-fat diets, and super-sized portions contributes to the country’s weight crisis. Insufficient physical activity, especially exercise, adds to the problem. These are solid science. In addition, today’s research shows a strong connection between obesity and social interactions, implying it might be considered a contagious condition.
Social networks are impressionable. Reading another’s blog post about a vacation, sickness, new job, or milestone event has an effect. As social creatures, emotions are evoked. This explains recent findings that entities like Facebook trigger feelings of insecurity in a studied population. People try to present their daily life in the most positive light on these sites. It’s attractive. No one wants to read humdrum details and failures of every-day living. Besides, everyone from former classmates to colleagues may have access to the posts, not to mention that old flame. Many gauge their own life successes and self-worth against this painted picture.
Following the same theory, social networking, both live and virtual, can be inspirational. Just as we often suffer another’s pain through empathy, we can find inspiration in their daily victories. We tend to emulate others, especially friends.
In measuring up to an admired friend’s fitness level or appearance, you may find your own extra inches parallel theirs. If it’s a contemporary, you may even attribute weight gain to a life-stage, an inevitable part of aging. Scientists theorize this is one way in which obesity spreads. Weight gain seen in friends close to one’s own age is assumed then to be natural and acceptable. These assumptions do not easily lead one to a Pilates session or a stint on the elliptical. This theory possibly explains the shared weight issue between friends.
Alternately, a friend who enthusiastically chats about Zumba® class with her toned body and energetic smile also may have an effect. You love this gal. Now, she’s telling you about one of the components that makes her that person you love. Might this determination for fitness, reflected in her inward and outward self, be contagious as well? Likely.
Researchers are curious about the possibility of spreading noninfectious phenomenon through socialization. Social-network science is a newer field of study. Further investigation is warranted to learn how the medical world can embrace this influence for positive outcomes. Our everyday social interactions seem to generate their own infectious results. The health and wellness of one friend has a direct affect on another. It is human nature.
Can You Be a “Carrier”?
The extent to which obesity and emotion was transferable between friends followed specific factors in the study. Medical and psychological details of the study participants were tracked for several decades. Researchers learned happiness expanded across three degrees of separation — from a friend, to a friend of that friend, and then a friend of that friend. Emotional impact diminished with each degree of separation. Shared obesity followed this same pattern.
Since this study began prior to the existence of social networking Web sites, we can only assume how this relates to tweets on Twitter or friends of friends on Facebook. Is the impact the same on three-degrees of online separation? For example, there are so many inspirational phrases posted. When shared with a friend, does his/her friend benefit from it as well? Or is the message not as important as the original source of information (the immediate friend that you know, see, and value)? Time will tell as further studies include social network sites and how expansive their impact may be.
What We Already Know about E-Friends
We recognize involvement in the sedentary world of screen communication has its impact on health and mood. Regardless of our virtual friends’ physiques, if the means to maintain the friendship is solidly rooted in online chats and other screen visits, health is affected. Countless studies prove the negative impact of too much screen-time.
Spending excessive time with friends online can limit time for face-to-face interactions and shared activities. Time necessary for our physical and mental health. If too much of our social life is confined to electronic interactions, mental health suffers. Despite ongoing chats via e-mail and social networks, there is an element of seclusion, which studies prove can lead to loneliness and depression.
Although further research is needed, it’s safe to assume we can be “carriers” of the happiness and obesity bugs. Take this reminder to heart. It is further proof we are not acting alone in this universe. We are a tiny star in the expansive sky. Who we are, how we interact with others, and even our health has a direct impact on the kind of light we radiate. Connectivity is powerful.
Taken to a cosmic level, the energy you put forth is returned to you. Be exemplary of a happy body and mind. Try to be the person you wish to find in your loved ones. Kind, compassionate, healthy– and with nice abs. In sharing ourselves, we are molding the world in which we live. It is our job to be responsible friends, accountable beings. Show others what can be achieved through your personal successes. It is in that way, we are all truly connected. It is how we obtain universal wellness.
Computer isolation: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thestarmama/79145410
Sky of stars: http://www.flickr.com/photos/newdimensionfilms/4003326283