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Power of Peer Pressure

When I arrived in the US a few weeks ago, a friend told me she was so happy that she would spend the next two weeks with me because she knew that I would influence her to eat healthy.

She had gained five pounds because a couple of relatives had stayed in her house for a month. While she thoroughly enjoyed their company, their eating habits were totally different from hers. One relative would have a milkshake every day, and because the portion sizes in the US are so big, my friend would sometimes offer to share it with her. Before she knew it, she had consumed 10 milkshakes. Then, because the relatives had young children, they were constantly eating burgers and fries. My friend has been committed to a healthy lifestyle for many years now but even she weakened under all that peer pressure.

The sayings, "Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are" and "Birds of the same feather flock together" describe the very human condition of wanting to be like the people we are with. The need for approval and the need to belong are strong psychological urges that can make us become chameleons-transforming ourselves so we are part of the "group."

Choose your crowd
Don't think that peer pressure only happens to young children and teenagers. It affects adults, too. You may not realize it, but your friends can influence your health and fitness decisions more than you know. I'm not talking about friends whom you only see once in a while. I'm talking about friends that you hang out with on a weekly basis. My friend is not in any great danger because she only has to see those relatives once every couple of years.

If your friends are overweight and physically inactive, chances are high that you are, too. Of course, there are always exceptions but, most of the time, your lifestyle is similar to that of your close friends. This makes sense because you tend to do the same things together.

I know someone who married into a sports-minded family. Because her sisters-in-law became her good friends, she changed from a classic couch potato into a sports and fitness aficionado. I know other people who used to be health and fitness buffs until they hooked up with the "wrong" crowd. They weren't strong enough by their lonesome to stick with their healthy lifestyles. Some not only stopped exercising and eating right, but even took up alcohol and cigarettes.

When friends decide to get fit together, they have a greater chance at being successful. The "buddy system" is a good motivational tool if you are new to fitness. Not only does it make getting fit more fun, because you are doing it with a friend, but you encourage each other not to quit when the going gets tough. Unfortunately, there is also a down side to this. When one friend gives up, it usually isn't long before the other one abandons the newly acquired fitness lifestyle, too. The exception to this is if the remaining friend has made new friends in, for example, the gym or the tennis court. That's why it's good to get to know new people wherever you execute any fitness program you decide to take up. You never know when your original friend will leave you high and dry.

I have seen the power of peer pressure at work among the students of the group exercise (aerobics) class that I teach. A few of them have taken it upon themselves to be the guardian angels of the class. They call up absent classmates, find out why they are playing hooky and encourage them to come back to class. Most of the time, the strategy works.

Your spouse or significant other plays an important role in whether you will be fit or not. After all, this special person is supposed to be your best friend. Thus, it is not unusual to see who have identical lifestyles. When you see exceptions, you can be sure that the fit partner has a strong support system of like-minded friends, and the unfit one has a bunch of out-of-shape pals.

Husbands and wives who are committed to a fit and healthy lifestyle are an example of the ultimate buddy system. Their influence on each other is powerful because living together means even their nutritional and health-related decisions are in synch.

Steps to take
Knowing how influential friends can be, we can take steps to keep the "good" peer pressure and avoid the "bad" kind.

If your friends have a quick weight loss mentality, educate them about the healthy and safe approach. If they don't wise up, be careful. They may eventually influence you to think the same way.

Nobody likes to go to the doctor alone. Encourage each other to take much-needed medical tests (depending on your age and gender group) like pap smears, bone density tests, prostate testing, colon screen testing and blood tests for cholesterol, triglyceride and glucose. Make it a fun activity by scheduling a lunch date after.

Be the "guardian angel" of your group and call your friends when they don't show up for exercise or sports.

If, because of job or school changes, you find yourself having to make new friends, choose wisely. Remember that you have to be a highly charismatic person to change a whole group of people. Most of the time, they will change you. This doesn't, of course, mean that you can't try to influence your new friends for the good, but just be aware of how powerful peer pressure can be.

If you want to change your lifestyle for the better, look for a like-minded friend and make a commitment to encourage each other.

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