The Importance of Social Support for Physical Activity

How do our social lives impact our health? While we all have an innate need to belong and social interaction is no doubt a necessity, it can also have complex consequences. I think we can all agree that those we surround ourselves with greatly influence what we do and how we act. I for one recognize that those around me affect what I eat, how much I move, and also how much I sit. In other words, the people in our lives impact our behaviours, both unhealthy and healthy. We will be focusing on the latter of course…

This is where social support comes in! Social support is the feeling of being cared for by others and having people to meet your wants, needs, and goals. Unsurprisingly, having sufficient social support can positively affect our health behaviours. For example, having a support system can make it easier to begin and continue engaging in physical activity. Indeed, research suggests that those who receive more social support are able to engage in more physical activity.

While social support can take many forms, there are two main types that are emphasized in M-PAC. M-PAC posits that companionship social support can influence our enjoyment, while practical social support can impact our perception of opportunity. These are important motivational factors, and when we have social support in place, it can really help us to decide to get more active.

Let’s start with companionship support. This is often what we think of when we think of social support. It fulfills a sense of social belonging and helps us feel part of a group. Put another way, companionship helps us feel connected which is otherwise known as the need for relatedness. Often this comes from shared activities. Without a doubt, partaking in activities with others can enrich our enjoyment (read more on fostering physical activity enjoyment here). I know that personally, I enjoy a walk or run far more if I have company! If I know I have someone to share something with, I will be more motivated to do it.

Tangible support may seem obvious: it includes concrete ways you can be assisted such as services or material goods. This could mean your partner offering to make dinner so you can go for a walk or a family member watching your child so you can get to your workout. Tangible support is really crucial, as it creates opportunities for us to fit in some physical activity. In order to manage our busy lives, some concrete help from others is a must as it creates valuable space in our schedule to take care of our body.

Fortunately, it is possible to actively build a support network. The first step is to identify the important people in your support system who you think you could rely on (think friends, family, your partner, or even neighbours!). Next it is helpful to reflect on the areas you need help with and identify what people could do to help you. For example, maybe you need childcare in order to get your physical activity in, and two hours of childminding would go a long way. Maybe you’d be more motivated to go for a walk if you had a friend to go with. Finally, identify who you can entrust to fill these specific areas of needs. Maybe your partner can watch your child while your best friend can provide companionship and be your gym buddy. Start developing your support system and remember it is okay to ask for help!

I think we can all agree that for most things it takes a village…physical activity is no different, and we need support to succeed. Bear in mind that it would be extremely difficult and unlikely to change a major behaviour such as physical activity without help from loved ones. So learn to lean on your people! Remember there will be times you can help them in return…after all, social connections are a two way street, so be sure to help your friends and family enable their health when possible.

Check back next week as we will start chatting about how to take charge of physical activity and really start incorporating it. The next phase of M-PAC is all about endeavouring and managing challenges. The first tangible strategy we will discuss is how to plan for physical activity!

References/Further Reading

Bauman, A., Reis, R. S., Sallis, J. F., Wells, J. C., Loos, R. J. F., Martin, B. W., & Lancet Physical Activity Series Working Group (2012). Correlates of physical activity: why are some people physically active and others not? The Lancet, 380, 258-271.

Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

M. R. Beauchamp & M. A. Eys (Eds.), Group Dynamics in Exercise and Sport Psychology (second ed., pp. 203-221). New York: Routledge.