As coach for the AARP Fat 2 Fit online community, I ask experts to share their insight on issues involving fitness. One such expert is Nedra Weinrich, a nationally recognized pioneer and expert in social marketing, a field that promotes healthful changes in behavior.
I asked Nedra, “Is obesity contagious? If it is, how do we make fitness contagious?” Her answer follows:
Yes. Obesity is contagious. A 2007 study found that if your friends or family members are obese, you are up to 171 percent more likely to be obese yourself. The reason is not just that you share genetics or eat the same foods if you live together; this effect is found even among unrelated friends living across the country from each other.
So what’s going on? Our norms and expectations about concepts like appropriate body size, normal food portions and exercise habits come from what we see our friends and family members doing.
The good news is that the social side of this epidemic means that we have control over whether we “catch” obesity ourselves, and we can turn the situation around to spread fitness and other healthy behaviors through our social networks.
If you decide to lose weight, exercise regularly and surround yourself with others who are getting fit, the people in your life are more likely to catch the fitness bug as well. These effects were found to extend to three degrees of separation—meaning that even friends of your friends’ friends can be affected by your losing weight. So break out of your unhealthy habits and set off an outbreak of fitness!
Nedra’s perspective suggests that we are highly social animals; consequently, we are connected to one another in ways we may not fully understand. Nedra’s comments also underscore the adage that “We are our brother’s keeper.” Armed with this insight, we are encouraged to become role models for others and to use our influence in a positive way wherever and with whomever we can.
Nedra Kline Weinreich
Nedra Kline Weinreich, the president and founder of Weinreich Communications, consults with nonprofits and government agencies to promote changes in health and social behavior. She is the author of Hands-On Social Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide. A lecturer at UCLA, Nedra earned her master’s degree in health and social behavior from the Harvard School of Public Health and has served on several federal expert advisory panels and committees.