Interested in adopting healthier habits? You have a better chance of success if you find a friend with similar traits to share the experience, a new study suggests.
Participants paired with others of similar body mass, age, fitness level and diet preferences were three times as likely to adopt healthy behaviors as those matched randomly in an Internet-based study conducted by a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
"I think the reality is, we as individuals may have less motivation to change on our own than if we're surrounded by our peer group, even if we met on a social network site," said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., who is familiar with the study. "We're very influenced by the group phenomenon."
For the study, an online social network was created to promote health and fitness. Broken into small groups of "health buddies," 710 participants were introduced to the idea of an online diet diary through a "dummy" participant who invited others to take part. Each participant was provided with a personalized, online "health dashboard" that displayed real-time information, such as daily exercise minutes, healthy behaviors and personal characteristics of the health buddies.
At the end of seven weeks, those who were matched with health buddies using the principle of "homophily" -- the tendency of people to have similar friends -- were far more likely to use the diet diary and take part in other healthy behaviors than participants whose buddies were assigned randomly. Not one obese individual signed up for the diet diary in the random networks, compared to more than 12 percent of obese participants in the similarly matched networks.
The results also suggest that the most effective social environment for increasing the willingness of obese people to adopt a behavior is one where they interact with others with similar health characteristics, the study said.
The study is published in the Dec. 2 issue of the journal Science.