Who is Your Tribe?
"You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with."
This quote has been attributed to motivational speaker Jim Rohn, and I believe there is a truth to it. The people you spend time with greatly influence your behavior - both in positive ways as well as negative ones. Your sister who always seems to say the right thing when you are down, to help you get back on your feet, that is positive. Your brother-in-law who keeps encouraging you to eat one more hotdog after you already declined ("C'mon, it's the weekend, live a little") is a negative influence.
So what does this have to do with health? Stay with me for just a moment.
Culture can be defined as "the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group." We can think of human culture, American culture, or even culture built around sports teams or dog breeds. Any time a group of people like to spend time together and have a common interest, you'll find there is a culture that is built around the norms of the group.
As humans, we are wired to belong. We want to belong to our group, to be accepted. To be in. To feel connected. We therefore tend to align our behavior to fit in with the expectations of the group. How else would a man who would never see a client at work without wearing a coat and tie allow himself to go to a football game shirtless with a big red "W" painted on his chest? Doing so fits the expectations of his weekend crowd.
Returning to health, one of the problems with making healthy lifestyle choices consistently arises when they are opposed to the norms of your culture - both the culture as a whole but also the culture that surrounds you individually. It can be hard to say you can't go to the bar because you have Pilates class, or to decline the tater tots that Grandma has been serving for decades. Conversely, if your coworkers all head to spin class after work, you may find that joining the group and getting exercise become one and the same.
Take a moment and ponder the social norms of your family, your coworkers, or the people you gather with on Saturday or Sunday? Where do you see positive influences, and where do you see negative ones? Becoming aware of these influences is a critical step to becoming able to use them to help shape your own behavior.
Lesson from The Blue Zones
I come back to The Blue Zones frequently, because I believe they provide a strong lesson about healthy lifestyle. In these 5 locations where a high percentage of people live to be 100 years old, living healthy and active lives into old age, we see that the culture pushes people toward the "healthy choice." It's just how people live. They are not deciding whether to go for a walk today. If they want to go to the market or see family, they must walk there. They are not choosing salad and beans over McDonald's, salad and beans are what is in season at the market and there is no fast food option.
Any time you can influence your own environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice, in a way creating your own "micro" culture, you are more likely to succeed in your attempt to improve your health.
Don't Let Your Personal Culture Be the Default Option
You don't have to silently sit there and let your culture push you where you have not chosen to go. While it is true you can't chose your family, you do have some choice about who you spend time with and how much time you spend. A couple thoughts:
If you can start to design the culture you are a part of, you may find it easier to make the healthy choice more consistently.
Think about the people you spend the most time with. Who are your best supporters? Is there a relationship you can leverage to the benefit of both - you lift them up and they lift you up? Are there people whose lifestyle you admire that you'd be able to spend more time with?
And think about who hold you back. Is there anyone you believe you should spend less time with right now so you can support your desire to improve your health?
You can make great progress with the right people in your corner.
Dr. Topher Fox
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