Because bad habits just might be contagious

For many people, the holidays can be a time of too much eating and drinking, a kind of end-of-the-year binge before a more disciplined New Year. But for some of us, the overindulgence isn't just an outcome of the season. In fact, a growing body of research shows that it may be related less to the calendar and more to the company we keep.

A few years back, an extensive and well-publicized study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that certain behaviors and habits, including those related to obesity, can spread from one person to another. This detailed study followed more than 12,000 people for over 30 years and concluded that when one person gains weight close friends tend to gain weight, too.friends

Findings indicated that having overweight friends increased an individual's chances of also being overweight by up to 57 percent. And the closer the friends, the higher the percentage. Interestingly enough, the same influence did not seem to be in place for neighbors, spouses and siblings.

Researchers attributed this link to the belief that most people get their sense of acceptable body type and their perception of fatness from their circle of friends rather than their other relationships. Simply put, when a close friend becomes obese, obesity may not look so bad. The research investigators said that their findings may help explain why more and more Americans continue to have weight-related problems: People who become overweight were likely to drag some friends along with them.

A similar relationship exists with alcohol consumption. According to a study reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine, when a close friend drinks more heavily (consistently averaging over two drinks a day for men, one for women) you're more likely to do the same. Using data mined from the long-term Framingham Heart Study, the research indicated that when it came to drinking, the closer the social connection, the greater the influence one person's drinking had on his or her friends.

The tendency toward obesity as well as heavier drinking also includes some major genetic and family history components, too, but in both cases the social network factor seems to be more significant than once thought.

Is it time to start avoiding your friends?

  1. One thing that both the research and the commentaries in the media that followed it emphasized was that despite the concerns about "contagion" the value of close friends with regard to quality of life and even health benefits was significant. So rather than dumping your friends, you might want to consider these three strategies for reducing the problem.

1.  Avoid the places that might contribute to the kinds of behaviors you're hoping to decrease or leave behind entirely. It may seem obvious but you still have to remind yourself not to meet friends in a bar if you're trying to cut back on alcohol consumption. Of course you can drink just about anywhere but there's something about good friends coming together in that "Cheers" atmosphere that can easily reinforce the problem. If you're trying to lose weight, don't gather somewhere – a buffet being a prime example – where the emphasis is solely on eating and often, overeating. walking

2.  Introduce your friends to some alternate activities, especially something on the physical activity side. For example, you can meet for a walk instead of a drink or lunch. You also might want to look at group activities like dance or exercise classes. Your friends might think it's a little strange at first but something a little more physical than raising a glass or a fork still gives you a chance to talk, one of the best parts of getting together with friends. Plus it puts you in the category of trendsetter!

3.  Consider expanding your circle of friends. This doesn't mean ditching your old friends, but rather broadening your network to include some people who don't share the particular habit or habits you're trying to modify.

The good news about the way we influence one another with regard to behavior is that it also works in reverse. Since people of similar interests, activities and values tend to cluster in similar social networks (not unlike the old expression, "birds of a feather flock together") you also have a similar opportunity to gain from someone's good behaviors. The same research that shows we follow our friends in some habits and lifestyles we'd rather avoid also indicates that we're equally as likely to be "infected" by their healthier approach to life. At the end of the day, however, we're responsible for our own behaviors for good and for bad, and won't get very far if we blame our friends when we overindulge. It's a good lesson for the holidays. And it's an equally good lesson for the months that follow.