Think back to the last five comments you received regarding your health habits. Who were they from? Family? Friends? Were they positive or negative? Support or sabotage?

In 2011 Kiernan et al studied how social support predicted weight loss in a group of women enrolled in a group weight loss program. I’ll skip the details, since I only want to use this paper as a springboard into some practical application. They found that greater than 75% of the women “rarely” or “never” experienced support from friends or family. From the abstract:

“Women who “never” experienced family support were least likely to lose weight (45.7% lost weight) whereas women who experienced both frequent friend and family support were more likely to lose weight (71.6% lost weight). Paradoxically, women who “never” experienced friend support were most likely to lose weight (80.0% lost weight), perhaps because the group-based programs provided support lacking from friendships.”

Regarding the last group, “This finding is less counterintuitive when one considers that women who lack support in their usual social environment may be precisely those who would seek out and subsequently benefit from supportive group-based classes.”

The authors make a good point in the discussion section while recommending future research direction – that these are perceived support levels. It would be interesting to know how supportive these women’s friends and family (the supporters) think they’re being to be able to compare the two. Either way, when 75% of women think they rarely or never receive support from their friends or family, something is broken.

 

Getting More Social Support

Take note of who influences your health-related decisions on a daily basis. Likely candidates are your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, parents, kids, co-workers, and friends. Once you have your list it’s time to start having some conversations. It’s really pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. “Influencer, I’m making some changes to my habits in order to improve my health and happiness. You’re important to me and I would like your support in all of this. You can help by <support you need from individual>. I appreciate your understanding and support and I value our relationship.” At least that’s the main idea you want to get across. I wouldn’t recommend saying that word for word since it might get you some funny looks.

That’s the basic idea for farming support from your existing social structure, but let’s consider this tidbit from the paper referenced above:

“Rather than influencing weak existing friendships or fostering artificial group relationships, a targeted intervention could encourage women to develop new friendships around healthy behaviors and access new networks that interpersonally and structurally support healthy lifestyle behaviors”

In other words if your current friends are unhealthy, don’t want to change and, most importantly, don’t want you to change, fire them and get new ones! Who needs friends like that anyway, right? This is often easier said than done but as you adapt new healthy behaviors you might naturally start  to distance yourself from non-supportive relationships and new relationships will flourish in place of the old ones.

With family this might not be so easy and may require a little understanding  and patience from both parties. I’ll use an anecdote.

A woman has been married for 30 some years to a husband who likes to bring her treats home from work. He stops and gets donuts or ice cream or whatever a couple times a week. She’s developed type II diabetes and now needs to get on the ball with changing her lifestyle. Among other things, the treats have to go. She has a conversation with her husband asking for help and explains that her treats are full of sugar and she can no longer eat them with the kind of frequency they’re both used to. He completely understands the situation and agrees to be more helpful. The husband goes from treat provider to diet Nazi. “Should you really be eating that?” “Is that on your diet plan?”  She asked for help and he’s doing what he thinks is helping. She explains more specifically what she needs from him which does not include tsk-tsking any food choices she makes, but instead includes helping her prepare healthful foods and encouraging her on her progress. He now has a better understanding of his role and can provide the support she needs.

You and Social Support

In the end you’ll have to find out what works for you and your relationships. The main point I’d like you to come away with is that your social support structure, or lack thereof, has a huge effect on your success. This is ignored far too often and I see people beating themselves up for not having the will power to stick to their plan. Think about it; if everyone around you is pushing you toward failure (knowingly or unknowingly), how much more will power will it take to achieve your goals?

It would be remiss of me to end here while failing to mention that relationships are not solely about supporting your success in certain endeavors. Of course you have to weigh the support you receive (or not) with any other benefits of your current relationships: love, laughter, compassion, etc. After all, I don’t want to come off sounding like some robotic jerk who measures his friendships solely in terms of how they contribute to his success.

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