Healthy Herd Instincts

The other day I was letting my mountain bike rip down the last steep section of an old mining trail. It was a hot 90 degrees. I was drenched with sweat and coated with red dust and the speed-created breeze felt good. With the front fork bouncing wildly, I came around a narrow bend and saw a jeep pull quickly off to the side of the narrow road to make room for me. I hit my brakes and climbed up a bank alongside the jeep, with two young guys inside. I nodded a greeting.

They looked surprised at the sight of an old guy making a hairy descent. One of the guys smiled and yelled, " Good for you!"

As I passed, I yelled a "thank you" back over my shoulder and enjoyed the last drop.

I recalled a thought-provoking 2009 article in the NY Times by Clive Thompson, entitled "Are Your Friends Making You Fat?", in which he explored a newly described phenomenon called "social contagion." Of course, it's not news that people influence each other. Consider it was 2500 years ago when Aesop, a Greek slave and philosopher, smartly observed that "A man is known by the company he keeps." But Thompson had a new slant. He said scientists are discovering that ideas and behaviors spread just like physical diseases studied in epidemiology.

What caught this TOJ's attention was that the scientists had studied the behavior patterns and health of the many thousands of participants in multi-decade study of heart disease being conducted in Framingham, Massachusetts. What they discovered is significant. People with bad health habits tend to socialize with one another -- the smokers hung around with smokers, fat people hung around with others with poor dietary habits. Likewise, people with good health habits tend to hang with one another. Evidently, the behaviors and habits are spread by the very act of socializing.

I thought about the truth of this. My fellow exercisers are more alike than we like to admit. Without thinking much about it, when together we naturally share information on diet, wellness, fitness, improving performance, training and gear. Sometimes we do it without even saying anything, like by what we serve when people come to dinner.

When I was putting my bike on the car rack after my ride was over, I thought about the two young guys in the jeep. I hoped the exercise bug spread like a highly contagious flu, and that the next time I saw them, they were pumping up the mountain on their bikes.

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