Your Friends Can Make Or Break Your Healthy Habits

By Di Westaway | Chief Adventure Chick and Founder of Wild Women On Top

My mum’s my hero. She's 80 and over Easter she climbed Mt Rangitoto in New Zealand, her first ever volcano. It was slow going as we paused often to drink, snack, inhale the perfumes, spot birds and marvel at the lava rocks, dripping moss and breathtaking views over Auckland Harbour. But she was determined not to give up.

When we arrived on the summit together she was a bundle of elegant smiles.

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Today she asked me if she could hike the remote and mountainous Larapinta Trail in the heart of the Australian desert. “Sure” I said, in awe.

My mum has always loved gardening and even a little bird watching but she has often found my love of pushing myself outside my comfort zone perplexing. But now, at 80, she’s in search of a hiking adventure for herself.

Three years ago, my cousin Becky, who was gym fit and strong from climbing library ladders, joined me on the Spit to Manly hike. She teetered and stumbled on the rough rocky trails but it inspired her to take up hiking. Since then she’s done the 60km Sydney Coastrek, motivated many of her friends and staff to get moving and says she’s the fittest she’s ever been.

My daughter, once a self-confessed ‘indoors’ girl who preferred malls to mountains, is currently training for a two-week trek through Iceland.

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Now I’m not suggesting it was all because of me that my family has grown to love adventures, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence. We know that the people we spend the most time around influence our behaviour, and this is so powerful when it comes to health. In fact, research shows that up to 80% of our health is determined our environment, including social influences.

Some scientists call this the Chameleoneffect, in which people copy the behavior of those around them – even subconsciously. In the same way that yawning and smiling are contagious, our behavior rubs off on those around us, subtly influencing their choices. And while this can sometimes have a negative impact – if you’ve ever worked in an unhealthy workplace you’ll know how challenging it can be -- the positive ripple has been shown to be far more powerful than the negative one. 

Lifestyle Medicine expert, Dr. Darren Morton, says “together feels better”, citing a Harvard study which found that happiness is so infectious that a happy person can improve the happiness of their friends and their friends’ friends.

So what does this mean for you? Well, when you begin to improve your health and happiness, this has ripple effects for those around you. Your kids, partners, parents, friends and family all benefit. And, in turn, their kids, partners, parents, friends and family all benefit. And on it goes.

I recently received an email from a 39-year-old Melbourne mum who I had coached in gymnastics almost 30 years ago. I had invited her to join a squad which trained 4 times a week including the weekends, and she found a happy place.

She said: “You gave me purpose and joy in my life which is extraordinary in itself… you would never have known what you were giving me… So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for what you did for me when I was 11. I will never forget it.” And now she’s doing the same for her son.

Another email I received a few years ago was from a Coastrekker called Michelle, who told me her friend inspired her to take up hiking.

She said: “My friend Kate completed Coastrek last year and I was struck immediately by her incredible sense of ‘something inside’, which shone from her like an aura! She asked me if I was interested in joining her and I didn’t hesitate – because of that ‘something’ that I had seen in her.  

“I could see the possibility that I could maybe manage the preparation and training for Coastrek at the same time as coping with the uncertainties and rollercoaster that every day brings me. So far, it’s worked, and if I keep everything crossed I will wake up on Saturday morning with whatever Kate has. It has clearly stayed with her, as we have all watched her stride ahead with Wild Women and deal admirably with her fair share of life’s challenges.

“Congratulations on uncovering all these women who are loving the achievable challenge of getting together in small or large groups, already fit or not, all body shapes and sizes, and getting us all walking together in our beautiful environment.”

Four years later, Michelle is still hiking and she now has her own group of up to 40 “Sunday strollers” who walk, talk and brunch together regularly.

And those 40 women will, in turn, create a ripple effect on their family and friends. And on it goes.

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We all have an opportunity to inspire those around us, just by doing what we love, creating ripples that last long after the adventure is forgotten. You might not realise the ripples you create, but when you invite that friend for a walk instead of coffee, encourage someone to join you on an adventure, share healthy recipes people may not have tried before, or take your kids off screens and into nature, you create a ripple. And together, all our little ripples create a movement.

Moving lifts humans up.

Moving in nature takes us higher.

And moving together helps us soar.

We have thousands of women in our community who inspire and empower those around them, often without realising it themselves. I’d love to hear your stories of ripples.  

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