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Do relationships affect our fitness? How those close to you influence your health

Posted by for Wellbeing

Relationships and workouts might not seem entwined, but they overlap more than you may think. Head Strong columnist Kimberley Wilson explains how your health is influenced by your friends and partner. 

You’ve been invited to interview for a position for a summer job. The email asks you to attend at 2pm at a nearby office. When you arrive, you are directed to the waiting room where four or five other people are already seated. You assume that they are also applying for the role. You take a seat, smiling warmly at the woman next to you. She smiles back but doesn’t say anything. Fair enough. 

As you wait you hear a short beep play over the intercom. At the sound, everyone briefly stands up and sits down again without saying a word. That was weird, you think to yourself. A few minutes later the tone goes off again, and again everyone but you stands up and sits down. What’s going on, you wonder, but you daren’t ask and expose your lack of knowledge. When the tone goes off for a third time, you figure it must mean something, and you join in the group behaviour. You still don’t know why, but now at least you’re not the odd one out.

What I’ve just described is an example of an Asch Paradigm, named after social psychologist Solomon Asch’s famous studies in conformity. Classic experiments like this explore what’s called social learning, the idea that we are strongly influenced by the behaviours and expectations of those around us. 

In short, it is important for us to feel that we are accepted and valuable members of the group and that usually involves some level of conformity with group norms. And if you think you wouldn’t bend to the will of the group in this example, you are probably wrong. Time and time again the research shows that even those who resist (or ‘deviate’) for a while eventually feel compelled to comply. The majority of people will conform at least some of the time. This social pressure can affect everything from the kind of music we listen to to the politicians we vote for, and yes, our health and fitness too.

Healthy relationships

We tend to average the behaviour of those around us. Now, partly that’s about the people we choose to be around. If I’m a lifelong non-smoker I am less likely to choose to spend my time with or date regular smokers. But, as described, we are also strongly influenced by the people around us, particularly our partners

Couples will typically fall into alignment with each other’s behaviours, a phenomenon called ‘concordance’. The good news is that if you want to make health related changes, say quitting smoking or being less sedentary, having a partner do it with you can quadruple your chances of success compared to going it alone. Research by Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2016 found that spouses were so influential on each other that it might be more effective for doctors to speak to couples together, rather than separately, about their health behaviours.

Of course, the value of relationships goes further than physical fitness; being in a committed relationship is, unsurprisingly, good for your mental fitness too. People in healthy relationships with good communication tend to experience less anxiety, release lower levels of stress hormones, have lower blood pressure, engage in more health-promoting behaviours and benefit from increased longevity. Knowing we are supported and have someone to share the stresses of life with can help us all to be more resilient.

Two women holding light dumbbells in a workout class.
Friendships can impact your fitness too.

The downside is that relationship influence can flow in the opposite direction too. This mirroring effect also increases our likelihood of engaging in unhealthy behaviours ie people who date heavy drinkers are themselves more likely to increase their alcohol intake. If I do start dating a smoker, I am much more likely to start smoking myself. 

Again, the quality of the relationship plays a role; unhealthy relationships are associated with poorer sleep, more depression and unhealthy behaviours. In fact, being in an unhealthy relationship can increase your risk of developing a heart condition by more than 30%, independent of other heart health risk factors, according to 2007 research by UCL. So the message seems to be that we need to choose our partners carefully, but what about our friends? Can platonic relationships affect our physical wellbeing? Absolutely.

Fit friends

Our friends affect our fitness in a number of ways. First, our friends set an example for us. If my best mate goes home early from a night out so that she can make her yoga class the next morning, she sets a powerful example for me. And because we tend to be friends with people we think of as similar to ourselves, I am more likely to believe that her healthier choices might be achievable for me too. Secondly, friendships have been shown to increase our motivation to engage in physical activity.

So what does this all mean? Well, it will mean different things for different people depending on the situation. The disadvantage is that where friendships are power-based or hierarchical, friends can sometimes trap each other in a cycle of unhealthy competitiveness, where health behaviours become more of a status symbol than an act of self-care. However, where relationships – whether romantic or platonic – are mutual and supportive they can be a source of inspiration, motivation and support when it comes to our own health behaviours.

So the quality of the relationship is a key factor underlying a lot of the influence of relationships on our health and fitness. So maybe the message is to invest in relationships with people who support you and you’ll end up healthier, physically and emotionally, in the long run. 

Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Pexels / This Girl Can 

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Kimberley Wilson

Chartered psychologist Kimberley Wilson is our Head Strong columnist, one of our resident experts from the Strong Women Collective and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. She’s passionate about caring for our mental health through evidence-based nutrition and psychological therapy – and loves discussing how you can train your mindset to become stronger in body and mind.