Imagine this: You’re lying on a weight bench, arms sore and back feeling a bit tight. You glance over at the wall clock. You’ve been at the gym for twelve minutes. You glance at your wristwatch. Yep. Just. Twelve. Minutes.
Now picture the above scene in two ways: one where you’re alone, and the other where your friend is spotting you. Maybe they’re a bit stronger than you are. Maybe you’re competing to see who loses the first two pounds. In which scenario would you push yourself a little harder and a little longer?
What are you trying to improve in your own life? Are you trying to quit smoking? Is a plant-based lifestyle something you’ve been considering? Are you struggling to make positive changes in your life?
18-year old Caide Prewitt does it all: tennis, running, Bikram yoga, P90X, weight training, dog-walking…she’s even headed off to college this summer on a full volleyball scholarship. When it comes to food, she tries her best to find balanced nutrition in plant-based ingredients. When asked about the influence of friends and family on exercise and diet, she agrees that there is a clear relationship between the two.
“When I’m alone, it’s hard to keep motivating myself on what I need to be doing. But if I have other people with me like my [volleyball] coaches and teammates, they can motivate me to do so much more. Food-wise, my mom helped me realize that what you consume is what you put out…because your internal body is so important on the energy you give and how strong you can be.”
Caide isn’t the only one who notices the relationship between health and social structure. The presence of others having a distinct influence on behavior has been studied extensively and termed “social facilitation.” It suggests the mere (or imagined) presence of people in social situations creates an atmosphere of evaluation and increased or decreased performance, depending on the confidence you have in your abilities.
Psychologist Norman Triplett pioneered research on social facilitation in 1898 when he found that cyclists had faster race times when in the presence of other cyclists as opposed to when riding alone. He demonstrated this effect in a controlled laboratory experiment where he found that children performed a simple task faster in pairs than when performing tasks by themselves.
Thomas W. Valente, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC says that when evaluating your health goals, it is “important to understand the social structure of the group and the dynamics of influence at play”.
This means that when embarking on a quest to make healthy changes in your own life, it’s helpful to take note of your group’s social structure: the hobbies of your friends and family, diet patterns, sleeping habits, etc.
But healthy social structures certainly don’t fall out of the sky and into your lap—they’re developed, cultivated, and, ideally, passed on from generation to generation. What do you do when you’re the first of your friends and family to actively seek out a healthier lifestyle? You can’t be expected to drop your group of friends and reinvent an entirely different social structure. Caide may have been raised by a health-conscious family, but she’s ultimately responsible for maintaining her wholesome philosophy. How did she do it?
“I think that if you were to do it on your own, it would take a long time to adapt because of all the temptations that can distract you from what you want to do. You have to switch your entire mindset.“
And if she wanted to bring a junk food-loving friend into her lifestyle, how would she go about changing their mindset?
“I would just…be a little pushy at the grocery store and say something like, ‘Hey, you need to buy this!’ And maybe, by introducing the mere idea of substituting veggies for potato chips, it could, little by little, turn their minds towards healthier options. I think a lot of unhealthy people don’t even realize that there’s a better and delicious way to eat, so even introducing different options at the grocery store could eventually change their lifestyle.”
Maybe you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by people who prefer chickpeas to chicken and soy milk to soda. But if you’re not, you are still absolutely capable of initiating change in your life and in the lives of your loved ones.
It’s your life so do something about it. If you’re craving that group of like-minded and health-conscious friends, do something about that too. If your friends are less partial to healthful living, make yourself the social facilitator of the group and nudge them in the right direction by offering them a taste of your black bean burger, or by visiting the local farmers’ market rather than the supermarket. Introduce them to the fresh-feeling, mouth-watering, invigorating, and stabilizing community of wellness. Just, well, be a friend.
 Triplett, N. “The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition”. Indiana University.  Health 24. “Facebook and friends influence health behavior”.