Social Support for Exercise and Dietary Habits among College Students

Article excerpt

Weight gain in the first few years of college is becoming an important concern affecting the likelihood that more young adults are, or will become, obese (Hoffman, Policastro, Quick, & Lee, 2006; Racette, Deusinger, Strube, Highstein, & Deusinger, 2005). Reasons for this are varied, but there is clear evidence of changes in behavior patterns including lower rates of physical activity (Dowda, Ainsworth, Addy, Saunders, & Riner, 2003; Huang, Harris, Lee, Nazir, Born, & Kaur, 2003), and exercise (Bray & Born, 2004; Racette et al., 2005), and more overeating and other poor nutritional choices (Adams & Rini, 2007; Huang et al., 2003; Hoffman et al., 2006; Racette et al., 2005) that can be linked to increased caloric intake and decreased energy expenditure.

While there appears to be good consensus on the "causes" of weight gain and reduced physical activity levels among college samples, there is far less consensus on how to prevent or intercede to reduce or eliminate this outcome. One "intervention" source that has been frequently acknowledged, but not often emphasized, is the use of social support to effect positive behavior change (Verheijden, Bakx, van Weel, Koelen, & van Stavern, 2005). Social support in general has been shown to promote adherence to dieting and exercise programs to achieve weight loss (Felton & Parsons, 1994; Treiber, Baranowski, Braden, Strong, Levy, & Knox, 1991; Wing & Jeffrey, 1999), but in some cases this support has been created by the program or exists only because the participants are involved in a program.

College students typically have a more natural and more immediate social support group involving friends and peers from home and at school. Research in fact suggests with respect to weight loss and exercise that the views of close friends are more powerful motivators than those of family (Okun, Karoly, & Lutz, 2002; Prochaska, Rodgers, & Sallis, 2002). This is likely due to the "objectivity" friends wield and the difference between friend and family bonds that require mutual positive exchanges between friends that are not demanded of family members. The power of the friendship and social network context is also why efforts to promote exercise and healthful eating such as weight reduction groups attempt to foster friendships to establish mutual social support among individuals with common weight management goals (Wing & Jeffrey, 1999).

Despite the strong effect social support can have, our understanding of the power of peer and friend influence on activity levels and eating habits comes mainly from the literature involving children and adolescent samples. Findings clearly show that social support is a powerful motivator for young adolescents diet and healthful eating behaviors (Backman, Haddad, Lee, Johnston, & Hodgkin, 2002; Contento, Williams, Michela, & Franklin, 2006; Eisenberg, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Perry, 2005; Huon, Lim, & Gunewardene, 2000; Paxton, Schutz, Wertheim, & Muir, 1999), and exercise (Motl, Dishman, Saunders, Dowda, & Pate, 2007), and weight control (Neumark-Sztainer, Wall, Story, & Perry, 2003).

By contrast, much less has been reported on the friend/peer context support for older adolescents/young adults even though the general findings in this literature also suggest that friend/peer social support is an important factor in promoting positive health habits. Courneya and McAuley (1995) for example, examined the influence of subjective norms (perceived social pressure to engage in specific behaviors), social support (comfort/assistance/information from others), and group cohesion (a dynamic process that unites a group in pursuit of common goals and objectives) on exercise adherence and found in a sample of 62 students participating in various exercise classes that social support and group cohesion were significantly related to their exercise adherence. Okun, Ruehlman, Karoly, Lutz, Fairholme, and Schaub (2003) assessed social support and social negativity from friends regarding leisure activity participation and found that different types of perceived social support predicted moderate and more strenuous leisure-time activities. …