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How the buddy system helps you break bad health habits at work

While it’s important to take care of your physical body, many people often forget to take care of their mind.

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Whether you’re trying to lose weight, eat cleaner, pump up your cardiovascular health or even combat some mental health issues, one source of success may be right there at the nurse’s station: your buddy.

Science offers overwhelming evidence that supportive friends can help you reach health goals. Just a few examples include the landmark George Mason study that showed supportive friendships help you live longer and the 2019 research published in the INFORMS journal Marketing Science confirming that certain peer dynamics can help with weight loss. But it’s easy to assume these findings only apply to tight-knit communities or group exercise at the Y. Not so! An accountability buddy can help you work on health goals right at work, which has the immediate advantage of being a place you both tend to spend a lot of time.

The typical nurse routine offers lots of opportunities for two nurses to support each other on their health journey, noted Christy Smith. She's a licensed practical nurse and school nurse who spends a lot of her day helping students formulate healthy strategies away from home and said many of the same strategies apply.

"If you work in an office where everyone takes their lunch at the same time, you might want to find a friend to commit to packing healthy lunches and eating in with you instead of going out to eat every day," she explained. "Seeing what the other person brought for lunch means there is some accountability there for bringing healthy, low-calorie lunches as well as sharing ideas for healthy meals. And along with saving money, if you're both eating in you also have more time to possibly take a quick walk on your lunch break together to get your metabolism going."

If you're in a hospital setting with haphazard breaks, you may have to resort to more of a "high five" support system, but it can still be beneficial. "You may only be able to check in with your buddy and talk about what you did that week to work towards your goals," Smith added. "But it's still a good way to support and encourage each other."

For those who don’t work 12-hour shifts, there are advantages to coming in just a few minutes early to walk and talk with a friend, or to meet at the hospital workout room to walk on the treadmill or even stretch for 15 minutes. According to the YMCA of Greater New York, “Any workout is more enjoyable with friends. A friend can cheer you on and hold you accountable. Plus, studies show that working out with friends actually increases how much we exercise.”

When your focus is weight loss, having a buddy offers a substantial advantage. In a landmark 1999 study of weight-loss treatment completion and maintenance, 76% of those who were recruited alone finished treatment, and almost a quarter of them maintained their entire weight loss for six months (starting in month four). But the friend-supported achievement levels were far greater. Those in the same study who joined with friends and received social support during the weight-loss journey managed to maintain their weight loss for six months.

One study from the Harvard School of Public Health determined that those trying to lose a few pounds lost an extra six pounds when they were grouped with some buddies than if they tried to diet and exercise solo. And friends who let their weight go are more likely to influence you to do the same, according to the Harvard researchers, among them Walter Willett, co-author of “Thinfluence.” In the book, authors cite “research has shown that a person’s chance of becoming obese increases by 57% if a close friend is obese, 40% if a sibling is obese, and 37% if a spouse is obese.”

“Obesity is ‘contagious,’ but physical activity and healthy eating are ,too, so we want to emphasize the latter,” Willett told Boston Public Radio. “Invite friends to join you for a walk or for an evening of cooking healthy foods. Bring your friends along in a positive way. That is the ultimate goal.”

Having an active accountability buddy in the workplace may give you better self-control over temptations like sitting all day instead of standing at your desk or dipping into sugary snacks when your energy plummets mid-shift. Psychologist Michelle vanDellen at the University of Georgia co-authored a study that showed you’re 20% more likely to exercise restraint by watching or thinking about someone who exerts willpower - and less likely to rein yourself in if the person next to you is indulging. This means an accountability buddy might make you act better because they do, or to be a positive influence yourself. “When you are faced with temptation, remember that how you act also affects those around you,” vanDellen told Reader’s Digest Best Health. “By giving in, you’re not only hurting yourself, but harming the self-control of your friends and family.”

And you can double dip on health benefits when your accountability buddy is a co-worker. Pausing for friendship at work is a healthy habit on its own, even if you don’t take the time for a walk or sharing a healthy snack. More time spent with friends, even if you’re just walking a few flights of stairs together, can protect you from stress, lower your blood pressure, and may even provide a buffer against breast cancer or increase your lifespan.

To attain some of these health benefits, look for these five crucial traits in an accountability buddy:

You click. “You like them – you share similar interests,” Innovative Health and Fitness group fitness instructor Nicole Goodno emphasized.

You're a good influence on each other. "To swap only good health behaviors, make sure you hang out with motivational, close friends," Reader's Digest Best Health advised.

They're upbeat. "You know this is someone who won't let you wimp out and will keep you motivated and accountable. They have a positive energy and attitude – negative Nellies are not good partners!" Goodno added.

You share some goals. "Whether your goals are short or long-term, you agree on the end goal and the path you are going down to reach it," she advised.

You see each other pretty often. You can't really be accountable if you don't see each other that often. So ideally, you'll work compatible schedules. "Make sure both of you have at least two times during the week that you can commit to each other's health," Goodno recommended.

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