Use Your Friends to Lose Weight

Use your social circle to help you reach goal — and stay there.
men and women eating in a restaurant

You already knew that your best friend can influence what book you download next, whether you buy those cute espadrilles, or whether you're finally going to give The Big Bang Theory a try this season. But research has also shown that social networks have profound impact on your weight gain — and potential loss. In fact, your best friend, regardless of where he or she lives, has more of an influence on whether or not you gain weight than your spouse or siblings, according to the researchers.

"Friends 1,000 miles away have as much effect on you as if they lived next door," says study co-author James H. Fowler, PhD, whose 2007 study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, "because you're exchanging ideas about appropriate eating and exercise behaviors and body size."

Does this mean you should ditch your overweight friends? Of course not. "This isn't about dumping your chubby friends and family members," says Karen Miller-Kovach, MS, RD, chief scientific officer for Weight Watchers International. "The study validates that relationships have a profound influence on our lives. Joining a weight-loss program like Weight Watchers gives you the ability to create a supportive environment and establish social networks that influence you in a positive way."

In fact, just as a social network influences weight gain, "you can use the same social network in terms of weight loss," says Miller-Kovach. The study's co-author concurs. "The effect works in both directions. If a friend gains weight, it's likely you will as well. If they lose weight, it's likely you will lose it too," says Fowler.

Here are five ways that you can nurture and expand your social networks to effect positive change:

1. Choose, or include, same-sex workout partners in your exercise regime. The study showed that people of the same sex had a greater influence on one another than those of the opposite sex. Don't quit a current workout regime you have with your spouse, but do add a same-sex friend or co-worker to a regular walking or other preferred exercise routine.

2. Make new friends, but keep the old. "The bigger your social network, the greater the influence people have on your health and weight loss," says Miller-Kovach. Look for people who have similar interests and values who can have a positive effect on your habits.

3. Be a positive role model at work, and beyond. Expand your network at your job. Scout for coworkers who can have a positive influence on you, such as someone who has recently lost weight. "You can learn from them in order to help yourself, and the impact will also be felt by others around you," says Miller-Kovach.

4. Pay it forward. The study showed that there are "three degrees of separation" at work when we gain weight, says Fowler. "Our health behavior not only impacts those we're directly connected to, but to whom they are connected as well, and so on through the network. So, if you get obese, it not only increases the risk your friend will get obese, but the friend's friend, and your friend's friends' friends," he says.

5. Attend Weight Watchers meetings. "In addition to having the Weight Watchers leader be a positive role model and influence, take the opportunity at meetings to reach out and get to know others," says Miller-Kovach. Like-minded members on the same weight-loss path will have a positive influence on you, and vice versa. If you subscribe to Weight Watchers OnlinePlus, use the Message Boards as your social network.

"The moral of the story is to get your friends and family involved in your own efforts to improve your behavior and diet. That way you're more likely to be successful in good health outcomes," says Fowler.

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