Is exercise contagious? In a sense, yes it is, and so are other health behaviors!
Many health behavior theories incorporate the concept of “social norms”. Social norms refer to the way people typically act and believe they should act. In reference to health, social norms include people’s beliefs about how often healthy behaviors are practiced in society or among their families and friends. Health behavior theories suggest that people tend to make healthy choices when they believe that family, friends and others in their community are doing the same thing.
In a recent study of social norms among women living in Australia, those who perceived others in their community as active where more likely to engage in physical activity themselves. Similarly, those who stated that many people in their community were frequent consumers of fast food and soda were most likely to eat fast food and drink soda regularly, and those who stated that many people in their community were healthy eaters had the highest intakes of fruits and vegetables.
In a study out of Cornell University, individuals ate more unhealthy food and less healthy food when eating with or near an overweight diner. The study findings suggest that people may be less likely to make healthy choices if they don’t believe the people they are surrounded by are making similar choices.
Recently, I have been experiencing the positive pressure of social norms firsthand because I am Facebook friends with a few of the fitness class instructors at the studio where I go to work out. These instructors post encouraging messages before their classes, often tagging members of the studio to remind them to attend. After their classes, the instructors post photos of class attendees in action. As a result, every time I log into my Facebook account, I see pictures of people I know working out! These photos reinforce exercise as normal and expected, causing me to want to join in more often!
Do your friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers encourage you to make healthy choices by modeling healthy behavior? How about your social media contacts? If you need more positive behavior reinforcement in your social media feed, consider following the Live Healthy, Live Well team and the Live Smart Ohio blog on Facebook or Twitter! You may also want to check with your local Extension office to see whether they have a social media presence.
Author: Jenny Lobb, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Franklin County, email@example.com
Reviewer: Michelle Treber, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Pickaway County, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ball, K., Jeffery, R.W., Gavin, A., McNaughton, S.A., and Crawford, D. (2010). Is healthy behavior contagious? Associations of social norms with physical activity and healthy eating. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity; 7(86). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3018448/.
Rural Health Information Hub (2016). Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Theories and Models. https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/community-health/health-promotion/2/theories-and-models.
Shimizu, M., Johnson, K. and Wansink, B. (2014). In good company: The effect of an eating companion’s appearanfe on food intake. Appetite; 83, 263-268. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666314004450.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). Social Norms. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-norms/.