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Reach healthy goals through social support

Making healthy lifestyle choices is easier when you feel connected to the people around you.

Social support from friends and family in the form of offering encouragement, establishing connection, providing accountability, and modeling has been shown to help improve adherence for a wide variety of health behaviors, including eating less fat, and exercising more, and medication management.

The degree of social connection or isolation you feel may even influence something as basic as the variety in your diet.

Finding emotional support is important to beginning and maintaining a new behavior change, such as increasing exercise. Sometimes this means finding someone to talk to while working out, complaining when you don’t feel like exercising or someone to cheer you on when you fall short of your goals or the activity gets challenging. Sometimes practical support is useful to being successful with your program. Practical support could be getting a ride to the exercise class, someone giving you weights that they no longer can use, or sharing a healthy recipe.

Most of us know what it is like to be lonely in a room full of people. You could be surrounded by hundreds of people, but if there is no one you can rely on, no one who knows you, you will feel isolated.

In order to be socially satisfied, we don’t need all that many people. According to John Cacioppo, PhD. (director of the Center of Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago), the key is in the quality, not the quantity of those people. We just need several on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return. Severe lack of social support or social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease — in other words, it makes us less healthy.

Some studies show support from friends and peers greatly improved people’s chance of sticking with an exercise routine or dietary change, while other studies showed that encouragement made participants less likely to exercise in the future. While that might surprise you, many people who feel pressured to be physically active or to eat “healthy” by friends and family, may shy away from that activity or eating with them. The take-away message: find that friend or family member who encourages you, not discourages you, to work toward your goals. The right type of person can motivate you to reach your goals.

Tips for using social supports to reach healthy behavior goals:

r Try to exercise with a partner or friend.

r Find a small group that enjoys the same physical activities as you do.

r Have your friends or family accommodate your food choices by offering food that is compatible with your diet.

r Find friends who respect your choices, giving you the space to make your own decisions.

r Choose restaurants where you will be likely to find something to eat in your meal plan.

r Have your friends choose to eat a similar diet and share food with you over meals, potlucks, or other social gatherings.

r Have people in your support system teach, lead, or otherwise inspire you to make even healthier choices through their own modeling.

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Laurie Welch is a nutrition and family issues educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension, 570-726-0022.

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