Researchers with Deakin’s Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research surveyed 3,610 Victorian women and found that they were most likely to follow the eating and physical activity behaviours of those around them.
“Our study considered the impact of social norms on physical activity and eating behaviours, including consumption of fast food, soft drink and fruit and vegetables,” said senior research fellow Dr Kylie Ball.
“We found that the women who spent time around healthy peers were more likely to also eat well and exercise.
“These results suggest that healthy living could well be contagious.”
Dr Ball said there are a number of reasons why the healthy habits of people around them seemed to rub off on the participants in the study.
“Women who see others engaging in particular physical activity or eating behaviours may view these as normal or socially desirable and may adopt them due to a positive attitude about the behaviours, a shared belief in their value or a strong urge to ‘fit in’.
“It is also possible that women are more likely to come in contact with others who engage in similar behaviours.”
The importance of social norms in influencing a healthy lifestyle highlighted by the study opens up opportunities for developing intervention strategies aimed at modifying social norms, Dr Ball said.
“The potential to modify social norms as an intervention lever for promoting increased engagement with physical activity and healthy eating is worthy of further investigation.
“We have an opportunity to help people challenge the social norms that lead them down an unhealthy path and create a new, healthier, definition of normal.”
The study, ‘Is healthy behavior contagious: associations of social norms with physical activity and healthy eating’, will be published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.