By Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.
There’s a group of women in my life who have a big effect on my wellbeing. We meet nearly every day around dawn, no matter what the weather. They are the women in my 5:30 AM exercise class, and they’re one of my social networks.
According to Tufts University professor and researcher Miriam Nelson, PhD, a social network consists of a group of people and the connections between them. “We’re just beginning to understand how profoundly we’re affected by our social networks,” Nelson writes in her latest book, The Social Network Diet.
Nelson says the emerging research shows that social networks strongly influence body weight and health-related lifestyles behaviors, such as smoking and working out. Depending on the actions and degree of influence of members, social networks can support, or hinder, a healthy lifestyle.
“I know from my own experience that the company I keep has a major influence on my actions,” Nelson says.
Ditto for me, and in a good way.
Working out with a group provides a sense of commitment to regular exercise, and strengthens it. The people in my class notice when you miss and gently rib you about when you come back. I need that vigilance to get out of bed so early in the morning.
But I get more than a great workout with these women. Huffing and puffing alongside them reduces stress and helps me feel calmer for the rest of the day. As a result, I am more productive, and I eat and sleep better.
To say that our early morning workouts have saved my sanity on more than one occasion may sound melodramatic, but it’s not an overstatement. Most of the women don’t know the details of my life, but somehow their collective presence and commitment to fitness is a huge comfort to me when things get rough.
Recently, the deaths of two dear friends and the constant medical challenges of close relatives have been enough to lay me low on many occasions.
Being among the women in my exercise classes gives me the strength to soldier through those, and other, difficult situations.
I only hope that the rest of the group, including the woman in the back row who recently completed chemotherapy for breast cancer, feels a similar sense of security and camaraderie. The same goes for my good friend and fellow exerciser who recently helped her mother-in-law live out the last months of her life with dignity and grace, even though it took a toll on her to do so.
A network can be small or large. It may include family, friends, or, as in the case of my exercise class, people you don’t know so well. No matter what the configuration, social networks whose members have positive health habits may be the ultimate strategy for a sound body and mind.