The secret key to healthy lifestyle change: Community

Beth Fletcher

Without fail, the single most common question I get asked both as a health coach and as someone who has undergone a wellness transformation of my own is this:

What’s your secret?

A few different things run through my mind every time I hear this question. First,I know what the person wants to hear. They’re almost always looking for that one magic trick—the pill, the gimmick, the diet, the cleanse, the 20-minute workout or killer gym that will help them flip the switch and transform into a swimsuit model.

The second “What’s your secret” answer that comes to mind is that, for me, the secret was never one thing. It was a whole series of events and eye-opening experiences and personal decisions and people who helped me along the way.

But the third thing I think when I hear this question is how sad it is that we live in a society where a healthy lifestyle feels so mysterious and foreign. Most of us find ourselves in communities in which making healthy choices doesn’t come naturally . . . like, at all. In fact, sometimes making a choice to improve your health can turn you into an outsider if it goes against the status quo of the group.

As individuals, we are constantly exposed to shame, sometimes from ourselves and sometimes from other people, when our bodies don’t match the stereotypical size, shape, and weight of that perfectly healthy person. We’ve been trained to think we have failed personally. But there’s a ton of research showing that it’s the nature of our communities, far more than the strength of our own personal will power, that shapes our approach to wellness and the results we see.

One of the most famous studies on the link between community and wellness, commonly known as the Blue Zone study, identified seven locations around the world where people lived the longest (often 100 years old and well beyond). The study found nine things these locations had in common that most likely contributed to the long, healthy lives of their communities.

People tend to rush right to those nine factors (you might hear them called The Power 9), but I want to focus on the bigger picture here: these aren’t personal secrets, they’re communal, social norms that make it really hard not to be healthy. Their primary transportation is walking. Their primary exercise occurs naturally in their daily routines. They surround themselves with people they care about, and they have a strong sense of purpose and belonging. They also tend to have plant-based diets and drink wine in moderation. But the most important part?

None of these routines are secrets. It’s a way of life in these places. It’s just what everybody does.

So much of how we live our lives stems from the people and communities we are a part of. It is really difficult to swim upstream. It’s almost impossible to drive into oncoming traffic. But that’s what making healthy choices feels like sometimes, right? People groan or look at you like a freak when your meal is a salad. “You’re going to the gym again?” The pressure to drink more and to sleep less . . . and the feelings of not being good enough or not fitting in that just make doing anything feel kinda gross. That doesn’t sound like the recipe for a happy, healthy life.

The bottom line: we can’t do this alone. You need a friend, a partner, a circle, a tribe, a community. When you have people in your life who share healthy, happy living as a goal, it stops being a challenge to make healthy decisions. It stops being hard. For people who succeed in making health a priority, wellness isn’t a secret, it’s how we live.

January 13, 2023


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