Elaine Batchlor, MD, MPH

I love this time of year. It’s the start of the holiday season, when the air is cool, our homes are warm, and we gather to strengthen our connections with those we care about most.

Whether we’re with friends, family members, or colleagues at work, the time we spend together during the holidays nourishes our spirits. Surprisingly, science is also showing us that these special times of connection can improve our health and the health of those around us.

An increasing amount of research is uncovering the power of our closest social circles—our partners, family and friends—to influence our health. The relatively new science of studying the power of social connections is revealing that the people we spend time with can be good medicine—in one study, people were four times more likely to take a positive action to improve their health when someone they were close to was doing it. It turns out that health habits are contagious.

This is a simple but powerful idea: You can improve your own health and the health of the people you love through the example you set. If a close friend or family member adopts a healthy habit, such as changing her diet or taking a walk after a meal, the odds increase dramatically that those around her will adopt that same habit.

I’ve been reading about this in medical journals, but it became real to me recently when some of my colleagues started to lose weight. Suddenly a scientific observation became a real-life experience.

I watched a colleague at a fundraising dinner served a plate of fruit and cottage cheese while everyone else received roast beef and potatoes. It occurred to me that he had been looking much healthier and was losing weight. I looked down at my plate and paused.

Not long after that I noticed that one of my colleagues at the hospital had been losing weight. He became another source of inspiration and of support. Soon I was making changes myself, choosing healthier food and walking more. Everyone knows that I now walk every afternoon, and staff has started to join me. Their habits are changing. When we take our meetings outside we often think more creatively and clearly—something that’s also backed up by scientific research.

Holidays are a time when we come together, with food often at the center of our gatherings. What if we used this time to introduce healthier habits and see how far they can spread? I’m going to make this year’s pumpkin pie with whole-wheat crust. My family also loves my roasted root vegetables – carrots, parsnips, brussel sprouts, turnips, yams, and onions tossed with olive oil – that caramelize to sweetness in the oven.

As you gather with loved ones for the holidays, I encourage you to think about this time as an opportunity to use your social connectedness for the good of the people you care about. Each of us has the power to take better care of ourselves—and in doing so, we influence the people we love to do the same.

Give it a try. Talk about what you’re doing with friends and family. Create new traditions that will leverage the power of your social group to reinforce healthier habits. Consider shopping for the family meal at the local farmer’s market and taking a walk after dinner. I’d love to hear what you discover and what changes you decide to make. Here’s to a healthier holiday for all of us.

Dr. Elaine Batchlor is the chief executive officer of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Watts.

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