By Ammi Midstokke
A few years ago I added some questions about “support systems” to my patient intake questionnaire. I had been hearing a lot of the same, challenging stories: my kids won’t eat anything but noodles with ketchup, my husband smokes, my colleagues bring in donuts daily, my friends are boozers. I was seeing a pattern in success rates for healthful change. When people had other humans in their life who supported change or healthy habits, patients were far more likely to transition their own lives with ease.
It’s not new information. Jim Rohn, the influential late-entrepreneur, author and speaker, pointed it out years ago with his famous quote, “You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” We’ve seen versions of this statement all over social media ever since. Here’s the reality though: Research shows that we’re actually far more affected by those relationships and their relationships than previously thought, making the number much larger than five. It extends beyond your intimate friends and family, and well into your community and theirs.
It’s not magic, it’s statistics. Still, it is a reminder that our friends and our broader community are impacting our health.
This is a good argument for every community health initiative you’ve ever seen championed in our small town: A healthier community means a healthier you. This means you benefit by supporting and involving yourself in those measures. Sign up for the 5Ks, the free health lectures, the community gardens.
It is not just about getting involved and then filtering your friends via some kind of audit process in which anyone who still drinks beer or bails on your morning walk gets cut from the team. It must also be about your own influence on your tribe, however big or small. If the office is training for a 5K or doing some fun healthy change challenge, don’t be the jerk with the maple bars. Eat those babies in shameful secrecy while your car is still parked in the lot. (Side note: Make sure all the maple is off your face before you go in.) Or maybe bring in something that is delicious and healthy for everyone to enjoy.
When you are attempting to make your own healthy changes, share them with your tribe, as well. It is sometimes a helpful source of accountability, but it also perpetuates the conversations we have about lifestyle, health and change. The exception here is if you are training for an Ironman and everything you utter is related to the amount of hours you swim/run/bike in a day. You people are super intimidating and thus have to have your own tribe.
Our changes can have a ripple effect on our people. A while ago, I began a strict policy of detaching from my phone after 8 p.m. At first I felt apologetic about not responding to messages until the next day. Then I told my circle and they stopped using their phones, too (or at least did not message me) and we all read more books and had more sex. Which meant our spouses were also looking at their phones less.
I often hear people who keep their goals a secret from their peers or tribe because they are afraid of failing and being judged. If you say you are trying to reduce alcohol but you are sipping a glass of rosé while you say it, it is true that your date might be confused. If you openly share your vulnerability, such as explaining that you’re trying out different ways to do this and some are more effective than others, you might find an entirely new connection to that person. Chances are they’re assessing how best to change something, as well.
We’re all trying to improve in different areas of our lives all the time. Pretending that these measures are a black-and-white, all-or-nothing, succeed-or-fail challenge means that no one has a fighting chance at creating sustainable change in lifestyle habits. Trust me, I’ve gone off sugar for the rest of my life at least eight times. Not only is that approach relatively uncomfortable and impossible, but it sends a message that we have the same ridiculous expectations of those around us, who also keep their struggles a secret.
Yes, if you want to be a runner then having a bunch of running friends will help you do that. But what studies show is that we are impacting each other, for better or worse, in a variety of different ways that are seemingly unrelated and far reaching. Surround yourself with a community of people who understand their impacts and celebrate yours as well.
If we were only the average of five people, things might be a little more simple; yet, we’re a part of a much more complex system of support. Identify yours and tap into it. You might find that making healthy changes is easier than you expected.
Ammi Midstokke is a local nutritional therapy practitioner and author. When she isn’t busy trying to save lives with vegetables, she’s adventuring in the mountains with her family and her brown dog.
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