The biggest challenge in adopting a healthy lifestyle is sticking with it for the long haul. Breaking unhealthy habits can be difficult, and often we fall off the wagon and return to our “comfort” foods and the routines that made us fat and sick in the first place. When this occurs, we feel isolated and sad, and our physical and mental health suffers.
So what’s the key to lasting change? Remember this phrase: You’re better together.
Most weight-loss or health programs focus on an individual's nutrition and exercise habits. But I’ve found there is tremendous power in applying those strategies within the context of a community, even if it’s just one other person. I call this the "secret sauce" in getting healthier. Consider: Are you more likely to exercise after work if you know a friend is planning to join you? Of course, it’s much more likely you will show up — and that it will be more fun when you get there.
Getting healthier with others provides subtle accountability and friendly support. Studies show that the health of your peer group is one of the strongest predictors of your own health and longevity. When you spend time with healthy people, you tend to become healthier yourself. The opposite is true as well.
The Power of the Group
In 2011, Rick Warren, author of the bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and senior pastor of California's Saddleback Church, asked me to help him create a program that his church and other faith-based organizations could implement to improve the physical health of their congregations. The program we created, The Daniel Plan, has since helped more than 15,000 people lose a reported 250,000 pounds, and that's just one of many healthy results.
What makes this plan successful? People follow it together. The curriculum is distributed through small groups who meet weekly for ongoing study and encouragement. They go on hikes, share recipes, cook together and talk about ways to replace unhealthy snacks in their diets. The expert advice, nutrition and exercise ideas, and special events were all made available to every participant. But it's the small group element — the secret sauce — that makes the whole thing work.
Healthy support groups create a safe environment for people to be honest with each other — and themselves. Communities support and sustain each other in the inevitable vulnerable times. They can even change the way participants eat in social situations. There is victory in numbers!
Small groups, or even a single workout buddy, boost our commitment and provide ongoing encouragement. Many studies have found that positive relationships strengthen health and longevity, while a lack of social connectivity is associated with depression, cognitive decline and earlier death:
- In one study of more than 300,000 adults, Brigham Young University researchers found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by as much as 50 percent. The health risk of being socially isolated was comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and was a greater threat to longevity than being obese or sedentary.
- Overweight and obese young adults are more likely to want to lose weight if they have greater social contact with others trying to lose weight, researchers have found. They attribute this to the encouragement and approval associated with that social contact.
- Several studies have found that people in loving relationships tend to live longer, in part because they monitor each other’s health.
- A large Swedish study of people 75 and over concluded that the risk of dementia was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying contacts with friends and relatives.
The Keys to Successful Support Groups
Debbie Eaton, an expert in small support groups, oversees 700 of Saddleback Church’s 5,000 groups. She shares these three keys to success:
- High accountability and encouragement. Keep these two in balance. Too much accountability without enough cheerleading can leave people feeling discouraged or pressured to be perfect. But without accountability, all the cheerleading in the world will not help people make lasting changes.
- Shared passion. Surround yourself with others who share your passion for physical well-being. Start with one or two good friends, then invite others who would appreciate your group's commitment.
- Start with certain limits. Generally, it is best for a group to commit to working together for a set period of time. Begin with a six-week commitment, and then re-up if the group is working well for everyone. Find one or two people who can exercise with you regularly, then start having weekly get-togethers to learn, cook or engage in a healthy activity together.
Be Warriors for Each Other
You have to be ruthless in defense of your own health, and a warrior for the health of those you love. When members of a group go soft on each other, to the extent that they accept or empathize with backsliding too readily, the group dynamics slacken and healthy progress is likely to deteriorate.
Patients sometimes ask me why I am so direct with them and don't simply accept their excuses. What might surprise them is that this approach goes against my grain. By nature, I’m more inclined to be a middle-of-the-road, everything-in-moderation, "just try your best" kind of guy. But that would not be in the best interest of my patients.
Here's what is in their best interest:
Dr. Amen's Ingredients for the Secret Sauce
- Be a friend, not an accomplice. If you support your friends' and relatives' efforts to get healthy, you are a friend. If you support their bad habits, even by unconsciously accepting their unhealthy behaviors, you are an accomplice.
- Combine healthy eating with friendship. Prepare healthy meals and snacks with friends; share recipes and ideas for cutting calories and boosting nutrition; bring delicious, healthful food to potlucks, office events and parties.
- Exercise regularly with a workout buddy or group. Incorporate exercise into your social routine by taking after-dinner walks with friends, meeting people to play tennis, or biking to social events.
- Create a Facebook group. Ask its members to commit to checking in every day and sharing how they make exercise part of their daily routines.
- Tell the truth, lovingly. It's always best to be direct and honest with someone whose health you care about.
- Make a group goal to celebrate your success together. You might, for example, run a 5K race together, climb a summit to celebrate reaching a collective weight-loss goal, or make simply a delicious, healthful meal together.
It's critically important to learn about diet and exercise. But the secret sauce that makes them work and last — and adds fun and motivation to the process — is that sense of community. So grab a friend or family member to get healthy with you. You'll both be better off.