In my opinion the presence or lack of a strong social support network may be one of the most understudied and underutilised aspects of health, especially in weight loss. On average 9% of Australians are lonely, but this is much higher in some areas with some studies showing up to ⅓ people are lonely. More and more people are fluctuating between periods of loneliness and then periods of connection, so their loneliness is not necessarily forever, but they still feel it.
A 2010 study of over 300,000 individuals followed for an average of 7.5 years indicated that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor social relationships. This lead the researchers of another study to say “Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity” —House, Landis, and Umberson; Science 1988
When it comes to weight loss – long term lifestyle intervention trials almost always focus on INDIVIDUAL interventions – education, monitoring, calorie counting, goal setting etc. And I can only find a few trials where people did it in groups or with a partner. In my experience people who go it alone are more likely to give up after a while versus those who do it with a friend, group or family member are much more likely to succeed. When you do it with someone it helps for a range of reasons – you can vent to each other, you can problem solve together, you can hold each other accountable when motivation is waning and you can celebrate the wins together.
Studies do support this. A 2009 study of 100 people showed that those with at least 1 successful partner lost significantly more weight at 6, 12, and 18 months than those with no successful partners and those without partners.
There are also small studies now being done on online support programs and groups. There are not many studies yet because this is a new area, but it definitely has potential.
But once again it is not just about the number of people we have in our lives. But also the quality of those relationships and the people around us. Are those around you going to support you on your journey? Or are they going to try to bring you down perhaps because of their own insecurities or fears?
Not only this but there was a 2007 study of over 12,000 people followed for 32 years. It showed that obesity is almost contagious, that people were most likely to become obese when a friend became obese, especially a close friend. If a friend of yours becomes obese you are 57% more likely to be obese, and if that is a very close friend, your risk almost triples.
So it really matters who we have around us. I am not saying you have to get rid of your friends or even go out and force yourself to create new ones. But I am highlighting this as an important aspect of your journey that you can consider and reflect. Maybe you could do a course like this with a friend who is overweight? Maybe you could catch up with some old friends you have not seen in years? Maybe you could meet in person with some of those you know on facebook? Maybe you could join a group of people who share your interests? Whatever it is, remember humans evolved as tribal creatures, being around others is fundamental to our health and happiness regardless of whether you are overweight or losing weight.