Can healthy choices be “contagious”?

We all know that certain diseases are contagious. But have you ever considered the fact that good health might be contagious too?

I certainly think it is — because so much of good health comes down to healthy habits. And there’s a certain social pressure that comes with health-promoting choices. When smart food and exercise choices are the norm in your social circles, it’s easier for you to make good decisions too.

Here’s a perfect example: A group of my patients recently went on vacation together. It was four couples, and they’re all good friends. They rented a home together in the Caribbean and hired a chef to cook them meals that stuck to the tenets of The A-List Diet.

Sounds like a dream vacation, doesn’t it?

Well, as they returned and I started seeing each of them back in my practice again, I kept hearing the same thing over and over: “I can’t believe I just got back from an amazing vacation, indulged in delicious food every day, and didn’t gain a single ounce.” Some of them even lost weight while they were gone.

They were surprised, because that’s the opposite of what usually happens on vacations — especially group trips where people tend to let go of their health priorities for the week. But in this case, at least a few of them made the decision to stick to their healthy diet. And that was contagious. All eight of the people ended up making good choices because they were around others who were doing the same.

The part of this story that I like best is that in this group, healthy choices are shared and encouraged — not looked down upon. Unfortunately, it’s not always like that. Not everyone in your life will be supportive of your efforts to get or stay in shape, or to eat well. In those instances, I encourage you to try and find strategies that allow you to stick to your new way of life without damaging your relationships.

For instance, when I was losing weight many years ago, I actually had to stay away from my parents’ home and only meet them in restaurants. Why? Because they weren’t supportive of my desire to lose weight and get healthier. So I maintained my relationship with them but did it in a way that put me in control of the food choices available.

Another way to stay in control is to use social media to surround yourself with like-minded people. In fact, some new research shows just how effective this strategy can be. This study looked specifically at exercise. And it found that when people learn about their friends’ running habits — speed, distance, duration — on social media, it can inspire them to improve their own running.

As much as I detest social media (I know, I’m showing my age here), I can’t deny that it’s effective on some levels. This is one example. The study showed that it can cause behavior changes to spread very quickly. It found that on average, if a person ran one extra kilometer, he or she could inspire a friend to run an additional 0.3 kilometers that day. An extra 10 minutes spent running could make a friend run 3 minutes longer.

I’ve seen this in my patients too. I know one very competitive family in particular that sends each other texts on a daily basis, encouraging the others to keep up, eat better, etc. It works for them.

I personally like to lift weights with a partner, because it encourages me to do better. Although when it comes to cardio, I prefer the zen-like anonymity of SoulCycle. But I know some people who like similar spin classes where your name is posted on a leaderboard in real time as you work out.

Different strokes …

In any event, social support has always been a key influencer on how we behave and what we feel we are capable of achieving. We have so many more platforms and tools available to us now. There’s no reason not to take advantage of them if they help you to make healthier choices.