In their groundbreaking work on the social contagion associated with health behavior derived from the Framingham Heart Study, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler found that behaviors of a friend, a friend of a friend, and even a friend of a friend of a friend (three degrees of separation), had influence on a person’s behavior. Christakis was quickly to note that “homophily” or people seeking out those that are similar, was not the only reason for people whose friends gained or lost weight, smoked or quit, or exercised or not. It was the “social network effect,” they said
Experts came to doubt their findings. They thought it was indeed homophily that influenced those who practiced similar habits.
According to a recent study based on Big Data that focused on running whether and how much we exercise can depend to a surprising extent on our responses to other people’s training. Even virtually.
While the study masked the global network from which the Big Data was taken, the researchers, from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, eventually gathered five years’ worth of data from about 1.1 million runners from across the globe. Cumulatively, those in the network had run almost 225 million miles during that time.
Overall, if one person ran for about 10 minutes more than usual on any given day, that runner’s friends wold lengthen their workout by approximately three minutes, even if the weather was discouraging. Similar results were seen if the other runner ran faster. So did he or she.
Speaking of he or she, gender mattered. Men were affected more by their male virtual friends as were women by their female virtual friends.
Bottom line: running can be socially contagious. And according to the study’s leader, Dr. Sinan Aral, the impacts “go beyond correlation to causation. In general, if you run more, it is likely that you can cause your friends to run more.”
The takeway for me is that first, Christakis and Fowler were right about social contagion in their work, Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks, and second, the questions, what else is vulnerable (good and bad) about our social networks and our behavior and if we knew, how could it improve our lives. I’m thinking “alot.”
P.S. I think the data came from Nike. If you recall in the Piskorski book, Social Strategy, he highlights Nike’s brilliant social strategy in linking Nike runners across the globe via virtual workouts to knit them together and to Nike products. Just a guess, but I’d bet my spin shoes it’s true. And speaking of spinning, my spin instructor told me last night that she read that spinning was shown to help symptoms of Parkinson’s patients. So I looked it up, and indeed spinning, or for that matter any beneficial exercise, was seen to help Parkinson patients. Here’s the link for it from the Parkinson Foundation: http://www.parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons/treatment/Exercise/Neuroprotective-Benefits-of-Exercise.
Here’s the NYTimes reference to the story by Gretchen Reynolds, their health and science reporter in today’s Science Times: