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5 Reasons Peer Pressure is a Good Thing

Most people think of peer pressure as this awful thing that makes teenagers drink beer, have sex, and make regrettable fashion choices, but it turns out there is a positive side to this type of influence. New research reveals that peer pressure combined with diet or exercise can be a force for good. Many health-conscious individuals have discovered that a “just say yes” approach to peer pressure and other social stress can help them get (and stay) fit. How? Let us count the ways…

The Buddy System Works

Here's one to remember for New Year’s Day. Planning an endeavor and partnering with someone helps you stick to your resolutions. In one British study, researchers split government employees into four groups: Group one was left alone to exercise and improve its diet, group two was asked to recruit a partner, group three was encouraged to develop “if...then” contingency plans (IF I feel hungry, THEN I will eat an apple), and group four made “if...then” plans with a partner.

The results: Working together and joint planning helped employees in group four stick to their new exercise routines, says Mark Conner, lead researcher and professor at the Institute of Psychological Science at the University of Leeds. What’s more, planning with a partner had a sustained positive effect that was noticeable after six months.

Choose Your Friends Wisely

Selecting the right wingman can make all the difference, especially when it comes to losing weight. According to a 2005 study from Brown Medical School and Dartmouth University, partnering with someone who is serious about dieting (and therefore successfully slims down) increases your chance for weight-loss success. Having someone to whom you are accountable and who can offer advice and support keeps you vigilant.

And it goes both ways. By making positive choices, you influence your partner, and then your partner makes positive choices and influences you back, completing a positive influence loop. Your short-term success, provided you partner with the right person, ultimately determines whether you both attain long-term goals.

Phone a Friend

You're walking by a Krispy Kreme. You want to walk in and buy, oh, a dozen. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?! One of the most successful tactics for increasing self-restraint is chasing tempting thoughts from your head. It's the same strategy that children used in the now-ubiquitous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. In the experiment, kids were placed in the same room as a marshmallow. They were told that if they waited 15 minutes and did not eat the marshmallow, they would be given a second one. The kids who didn't immediately chow down distracted themselves by covering their eyes, turning around, tugging on their pigtails, or stroking the marshmallow as if it was a tiny stuffed animal.

What's the adult equivalent? Call your boyfriend or husband, G-chat with a friend, walk down to a coworker’s cube, hop on Facebook—distract yourself with social activities. The craving will pass.

Paging Dr. Friendship

It's a common refrain among moms: "Would it kill you to get out and meet more people?" Heed her advice this time. It might save your life. Research shows that a woman’s social network may impact her chances of surviving breast cancer by enhancing her coping skills, providing emotional support, and expanding opportunities for information-sharing. Another health perk of pairing up: Married men and women live longer following heart surgery.

We all need our alone time, but too little social interaction can have some scary side effects—the same as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic and twice as many as being obese, according to researchers at Brigham Young University.

When people are connected to a group and feel responsibility for others, their sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks, says researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad. The positive effects of relationships are not exclusive to older adults. They span all age groups.

Good Peer Pressure

Forget what you've learned from those "afterschool specials." Kids succumb to peer pressure every day, and it’s not always a bad thing. When children encourage their peers to play, those being encouraged (or “pressured”) significantly improve both cardiovascular fitness levels and academic test scores, according to researchers at the Maritime Heart Center (MHC) in Canada.

The MHC team created a program in which peer mentors could lead games (relays, tag, and ball games) during recess. There was an average increase among peer-mentored students of more than 1,000 steps a day, says lead researcher Dr. Hancock Friesen, who hopes that parents and school leaders will adopt new ways of encouraging children to be more active, based on these results.

Joe Donatelli is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @joedonatelli.