Can Your Friends Make You Fat?Steve Edwards
A new study suggests that we might "catch" obesity from those around us. Now instead of just cold and flu season, it appears we have to worry about fat season, which unfortunately lasts all year long. Further research suggests that we're three times more likely to be overweight today than we were a decade ago, and that 75 percent of us will be obese by 2015. Clearly, we're in the middle of an outbreak. Before you freak out though, read on, because we've already found a cure.
This issue came to a head with the publication of a study in the July 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that suggests that "obesity is contagious." The week before this, another article was published that included the findings of a Johns Hopkins University study projecting that 75 percent of Americans would be overweight by the year 2015. Since bad news always happens in threes—CNN capped July with an interactive map showing rising obesity rates nationwide, state by state, with almost all states clocking in with obesity rates higher than 20 percent in 2004, while in the deep South, rates had climbed above 25 percent.
Be careful who your friends are
The NEJM study was particularly interesting. From 1971 to 2003, two scientists analyzed the health data of 12,000 people who were part of the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing cardiovascular study. These participants then provided contact information for friends, which resulted in a total study group of more than 38,000 people. The goal was to find the relationship between an individual's family, close friends, and social network and his/her health. The results indicated that all peers, not just family, had a dramatic effect on an individual's fitness. (Read this for more on the questionable role that family or genetics plays on obesity).
The researchers found that if an individual in the study gained weight, there was a 57 percent chance that a close friend had also gained weight. Among siblings, there was a 40 percent chance that if one became obese the other would too, whether the other was a sister or brother. Among spouses, the chances were 37 percent. Many other stats were published, but the bottom line was the link between friends. The closer the relationship, the greater the chances became that the friends' fitness conditions would be similar.
Research on peer pressure in certain groups, particularly teenagers, is fairly well known. Not many people contest the idea that a teen's peers affect their behavior, particularly whether or not they smoke, drink, or use drugs. But this was the first major study to look at peer influence over body shape. The study also took notes on close friends, and friends of friends, and found links among one's entire social network.
"What appears to be happening is that a person becoming obese most likely causes a change of norms about what counts as an appropriate body size," noted study co-author Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, from Harvard Medical School, in LiveScience. "People come to think that it is okay to be bigger since those around them are bigger, and this sensibility spreads."
If it's socially acceptable, then why should you care?
Being thin is not all about social acceptance. A thin body is, generally, a healthy body. It's estimated that obesity causes over 300,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. The health care cost of treating obesity, in America alone, is approximately $100 billion. In England, obesity is responsible for around 30,000 deaths per year. "There are clear links between obesity and our biggest killers, heart disease and cancer," said British Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper in the British Medical Journal.
Then there's type 2 diabetes, the fastest growing illness on the planet, which is directly related to obesity. Currently, approximately 56 percent of Americans are overweight, one in five is clinically obese, and 7.3 percent have diabetes. Furthermore, because so many cases go undetected, it's estimated that more than 10 percent of the U.S. population could potentially have type 2 diabetes.
If people lost weight, the percentage would plummet. According to a study published in the NEJM in 2002, lifestyle changes help more than drugs to combat the disease. The best prevention, according to the Mayo Clinic, is to eat healthily, exercise, and lose weight.
Reading the small print
There is a silver lining to all this. While the idea that obesity is contagious garnered all the attention, the NEJM article also stated that "thinness was also contagious." In the study, those who had thin friends tended to be thin themselves. Peer pressure, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing. (Help your youngsters get a head start on becoming healthy influences by reading "9 Healthy Snack Ideas for Kids.")
"We show that one person's behavior ripples through the network to have an impact beyond those first-order friendships," reported co-author James Fowler, a social-networks expert at the University of California, San Diego, to LiveScience. "So we're talking about dozens of people that are affected by one person's health outcomes and health behaviors."
Sure, the obesity trend is scary. But what we need to realize is that it's just that, a trend. It's not an epidemic. It can be easily reversed.
So about that cure we were talking about . . .
When we launched the Message Boards in 2001 and WOWY® (Work Out With You), a networking program for virtual workout partners, a few years later, we understood the power that accountability plays in an individual's success and how our members could band together and support each other to accomplish their fitness goals. Many of our members come from situations wherein it's difficult to get thin, stay fit, and live a healthy day-to-day lifestyle. Our goal was to set up a support network that was so all-encompassing that it was hard for them not to become involved.
The Message Boards were an instant hit. At our first Success Story get-together, the Message Boards were the most-cited reason for weight loss success. Tony Horton, (who back then was only known as "the creator of Power 90®") called the Boards "the coolest thing I've seen in all my years in the fitness industry." The successes due to Board accountability led to the evolution of our support tools and articles such as "10 Tips from the Best of the Boards." "We all screw up sometimes. It's part of being human," confided Million Dollar Body member Donna K, "and we're always here [on the Boards] with some positive feedback."
"Friends that are thousands of miles away have just as large an impact on you as friends who are right next door," Fowler told LiveScience, but it may as well have been Beachbody® CEO Carl Daikeler explaining why he created WOWY. The Boards could help with daily support, diet, scheduling, and personal issues, but they lacked one thing, a real-time workout partner. WOWY was created for those times when you "just don't feel like it." With WOWY, you can have a friend who will come over "virtually" and drag you to the "gym." You schedule your workout ahead of time, generally with other people. When you log on, you actually see them there waiting for you (if not, get on your IM and drag them to the gym). Once you've finished, your workout buddy will be there in the cooldown chatroom. The only thing missing is a virtual smoothie bar—though members have been known to sip their P90X® Peak Recovery Formula while chatting.
Besides the Message Boards and WOWY, Million Dollar Body now has an entire site dedicated to member support. From calculators to diet plans to trainer tips and chats, it's probably the most vibrant fitness community in the world. If a 38,000-person study proves that you can "catch obesity," we have over a million members who've proven you can also "catch fitness." No matter how contagious your family and friends may be, we have the antidote.
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