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Peer Pressure Can Be Healthy

Individuals with eating disorders often struggle in isolation. The shame that is associated with anorexia and bulimia nervosa often keep the disorders a secret for many years, and as the problems progress, social networks often suffer. Some research has shown that people who have eating disorders also have an associated difficulty with social interactions.

A new study may show support for engaging eating disorder patients with a network of healthy social contacts. The study indicates that being around friends with healthy habits in the areas of nutrition and exercise may be useful in helping get disordered eating behaviors re-directed and replaced with healthy habits.

The study was recently published in BioMed Central’s open access International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. It found that both physical activity levels and eating behaviors were strongly influenced by social norms. The study’s findings indicate that hanging out with people who are as healthy as you would like to be may be the best strategy for getting fit.

Lead researcher Kylie Ball of Deakin University in Australia explains that there has been extensive research recently in the area examining the importance of social network when it comes to physical activity and healthy eating. However, Ball and colleagues conducted one of the first studies to demonstrate a connection between social support and social norms with exercise and eating choices.

The study recruited women aged 18 to 46 years old and tested the extent to which healthy behaviors within a person’s social network influenced their own lifestyle choices. The participants asked to rate their agreement with statements like "I often see other people walking in my neighborhood" and "lots of women I know eat fast food often."

The women who reported a healthy circle of social contacts were more likely to eat well and get more exercise. Ball explains that the findings may indicate a contagion occurring with healthy behaviors.

Ball says that the findings suggest potential in the area of modification of social norms as an intervention for healthy eating and physical activity.

The findings may also be helpful in understanding the ways that eating disorders develop, change and how they may be treated. A support network centered on an eating disorder patient’s contacts with healthy habits may be helpful in preventing relapse once a patient has finished treatment. Research has shown clustering of eating disorder cases in counties, indicating that both healthy and unhealthy habits have the potential to be contagious.

There is still hope.

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