I am a long distance athlete. If you had told my 20 year old self that my 35 year old self would be a seasoned marathon runner and ironman triathlete I’d have laughed and told you that running wasn’t a sport, running was the thing “real sports” use for punishment. In terms of exercise habits, I was fairly typical of most Americans. I would decide it was time to lose weight, I would make a resolution, I would join a gym, maybe buy some home-gym equipment, and I would exercise three or four times a week for about a month, maybe three if I was really motivated. Then, slowly, I would stop going until, by the six-month mark, I’d abandon my efforts completely. If I couldn’t get my act together enough to exercise regularly in my 20s, when physical activity is supposed to be “easier,” how did I manage to run my first marathon at the age of 30 and, better than that, stick to my exercise routine so well that I actually became a running coach? What changed? The answer is “community.”
As I was approaching my 30th birthday, I found myself working in a community of people who were very physically active. As a result, nearly everyone I created a social connection with with at work was a runner or a cyclist. As we became close, they encouraged me to join them in their fitness activities, just to have something “fun” to do together. We signed up for 5K races and charity cycling rides. We made plans to get together and train during the week. Just before my 30th birthday, we decided to join a marathon team and raise money for charity while training for a big race. Joining a team meant finding an even bigger community of active people, which led to even more new friends who were runners. Suddenly, nearly everyone I was interacting with on a daily basis were people who made exercise a part of their daily life; but more than that, our social interactions happened through exercise. Rarely would someone go for a run by himself or herself. There was always an invitation to exercise together. It was more than just accountability; it was on our training runs that we would catch up on each other’s lives the way most people in less active communities would catch up over coffee. Many phone calls began with, “You will not believe what happened to me today! Do you want to go for a run so I can tell you all about it?”
Living in a community of people who integrated exercise so seamlessly into their lives made exercising regularly a natural part of my daily routine. It wasn’t an extraordinary effort to work out five times a week. It wasn’t hard to fit an hour at the gym into my very busy schedule. It wasn’t difficult to drag myself out of bed 30 minutes early to go for a run. It felt like I was simply meeting up with friends who I genuinely wanted to socialize with. The exercise just sort of “happened” as a result of that.
There have been several studies done in the last 10 years that would support this connection between community and healthy habits. In 2009, a study by Gallup and Healthways collected BMI data as part of a Well-Being Index that began in January of 2008. It surveyed in 187 metro areas and found good health habits were the norm in the 10 slimmest U.S. metro areas. Another study analyzing data from the Framingham Heart Study over 32 years showed that person's chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval, leading to “clusters of obesity” in social groups. It is becoming increasingly clear that community makes a difference in healthy behavior.
Now that my career has brought me into the field of worksite well-being, my co-workers and I spend a lot of time creating programs and campaigns to help people to create lasting behavior change to improve their well-being. In reflecting on the studies done by Gallup and Healthways, and my own experience of becoming an active person, I see so clearly that community is an integral part of the equation. Instead of singling out people in worksite wellness programs who “need to exercise” and creating programs and campaigns just for them, we’ve started focusing our efforts on creating campaigns that integrate physical activity into how the community (in our case, worksite) interacts together.
Laura Ingalls, BFA, CPT, CHHCView other articles in the Well-being at Work series: worksite culture of well-being, the essence of energy, what is well-being, social well-being, community well-being, purpose well-being, money well-being.