I’m taking Social Epidemiology this semester, which has proven to be both (a) a great final class as it’s not too much work and (b) very interesting (which could also contribute to the “not too much work” thing as I find it interesting). It’s really the intersection of my previous degree (you know, that social psychology emphasis I had) and the current MPH. Honestly, it’s an area I could see myself getting really involved in career-wise if I found the right opportunity.
Anyway, one of the articles we had to read for class yesterday was (in the most basic of terms) a study that looked at a very large social network and the relationships between the people in that network. The outcome they were looking at was obesity – not that the relationships themselves LED to obesity, but were you more likely to be overweight or obese if other people in your social network were overweight or obese? The bottom line (so I don’t bore you with the stats) is that people are more likely to become obese if they have a sibling or family member, spouse, or even friend up to 200 miles away who becomes obese. The chances for each relationship leading to this are different, with the highest one being that of the spouse.
It’s really a fascinating topic, which led to us talking about adoption of behaviors in general, whether they be bad or good. Things like adopting healthy eating behaviors or beginning and exercise program influencing those in your social network (which I have seen to an extent in my own life, although my healthy eating behaviors have gone down the tubes lately).
I also thought about it from the aspect of watching The Biggest Loser – I’ve been watching for the past 4 seasons now & 3 of those were TBL – Couples. So generally family members or husbands/wives competing together. Occasionally people who are friends will sneak into the “couples” competition, but by and large it’s family/spouses. What you’re seeing here is a real life example of what the article found – if one person in a couple (I use that term loosely to refer to the family & spouse relationships both) is obese, the other is more likely to be obese. It can all lead back to observational learning, at a basic level, especially for the parent-child relationship. We learn behaviors that are modeled. If someone eats badly &/or doesn’t participate in physical activity, their children are learning that behavior. Changing the behavior of one person might be more successful if it was a whole family paradigm shift.
I can’t even imagine trying to make a behavioral change to try to lose the weight if I was in a romantic relationship with someone who wasn’t willing to make the change with me. Not that I would force a change on someone else, but just being out with someone who isn’t trying to eat healthy or who doesn’t want to go to the gym would make it harder for the person trying to make the change to engage in those healthier behaviors. If the person sitting next to me is eating a cheeseburger, I might be more likely to eat a cheeseburger too just because it’s become an acceptable meal by the other person choosing it.
I don’t expect that anyone I see on a regular basis is going to change their eating habits because I’m trying to. But I think being aware of the influence they can have on my health behaviors can help me stay on track. And maybe in realizing this, I can get myself back on track in general. And maybe even get my booty back to the gym on a regular basis.