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Published: November, 2016; Vol 13, Num 6

Journey to a Healthier You:

Social Wellness: The Influence of Social Support on Health

In our March 2016 “Journey to a Healthier You” article, social wellness was defined as developing and maintaining positive, healthy relationships with others, contributing to the communities where you live, learn, work and play and valuing the environment.

The “Journey to a Healthier You” series continues this month with a deeper look at social wellness and social support – what it is, how it is beneficial and how to incorporate it into your life to improve overall well-being.

The “social” in social support

Your social network has a significant impact on your health behaviors. And no, we’re not talking about the number of Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections or Instagram followers you have. The social network we are referring to is comprised of the people you interact with on a regular basis. This typically consists of your immediate family members, close friends and coworkers. Your social circle could also encompass extended family and members of the community such as neighbors, parents of your children’s friends, religious organizations, political organizations or other groups.

The “support” in social support

There are three types of social support:

Type of Support

Definition

Example

Emotional

Making someone feel cared for and providing a sense of belonging.

Letting someone know you believe in their ability to make better food choices and then providing positive reinforcement.

Physical

Tangible support that provides aid or assistance.

Going grocery shopping with someone to help them select and purchase nutritious food.

Informational

Information, intellectual property or guidance.

Sharing healthy recipes to make and letting someone know where the closest grocery stores to their job or house are.

Research shows social support can be a positive contributor to successful behavior change. The stronger the social tie is, the stronger the influence over one’s behaviors. Positive social support has been proven to:

  • Promote a healthy lifestyle of eating a nutritious diet and engaging in regular, consistent physical activity.
  • Improve disease management with increased control and monitoring of health conditions and taking medications as prescribed.
  • Reduce perceived stress associated with daily hassles, larger life events, self-critique and overall attitude.
  • Enhance life satisfaction by increasing motivation and confidence, adding to feelings of happiness and decreasing anxious and depressive feelings.

But social support is also a double-edged sword. If your social network is healthy or working on becoming healthier, you are more likely to follow in their footsteps. However, if your social network engages in unhealthy behaviors (e.g., excessive drinking, engaging in risky sexual or unsafe practices, using tobacco, leading a sedentary lifestyle), you may be more likely to follow those same unhealthy behaviors and may find it more difficult to change your behaviors.

How to incorporate this into your own life:

  1. Consider a health goal you would like to achieve. Reasonable health goals include: drinking less soda or more water, spending less time on the couch or exercising more, eating more vegetables or cutting back on candy (especially after Halloween), getting more quality sleep or breaking the “snooze button” habit.
  2. Tell someone about it. By sharing your health goal, you are holding yourself accountable. If possible, tell someone that you see every day. Depending on what the goal is, it might be best to tell someone you live with such as a spouse or significant other (especially if the goal is sleep related). Then ask that person to periodically check in with you to see how you’re doing. If you’re not used to this, it may be uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier with time.
  3. Recruit help and support one another. In return, ask your family member or friend if they have a health habit of their own they would like to work on. If it is the same health goal then it is even easier to provide emotional, physical and informational support for one another.

Bottom line: Aim to surround yourself with people who influence you in a beneficial manner and who help you realize your full potential. You will be more successful if you approach lifestyle-related health changes with someone rather than alone.

[Emily Smith is the Health Promotion Division’s Senior Benefit & Wellness Specialist.]