How to Use the Buddy Effect to Achieve Your Health Goals

Your alarm clock goes off for your early a.m. workout. The kids are in bed and you know you have a good two hours before the gym closes. It’s a nice afternoon outside – the perfect day for a walk or set of sprints over your lunch hour. What will you choose? Would it make a difference if you knew someone was waiting there for you? Of course! The truth is, some of us need a little extra motivation, and all of us could use added incentive once in a while. There’s a different level of accountability when you know your best friend will be disappointed (or chew you out later) if you bail on them. (Seriously, who wants to be that person?) Call it social encouragement, interpersonal obligation, or conflict avoidance, but it works. Health strategy of the day: the buddy system.

Research solidly backs up this two-is-better-than-one proposition. People are more likely to stick with a health routine over time and to show up for health related activities, such as fitness classes, if they are part of a formal group or partnership. Heck, one study showed that even a series of computerized calls spurred participants to exercise more than a control group (although not as much as the group that received phone check-ins with actual humans). If a robocall can get these people moving, imagine the incentive of a real, live, flesh and blood person – someone you even like. Finally, if you’re lucky enough to work out with your spouse, know that the buddy system can actually improve your relationship as well as help you reach your health goals.

The fact is, it matters that we feel supported in our health efforts, whether they be a Primal eating plan, a fitness routine, stress management, etc. If we can’t count on significant others to lend that encouragement, however, it’s hardly the end of the social line. The point of the buddy system (or cohort, if you can gather up a Primally minded posse) doesn’t revolve around the individual’s particular role in your life. It’s about the affirmation and accountability – the contact and the check-in. It’s about having someone expecting you at the assigned time for a workout. It’s about sharing in the celebration when you both resist temptation at your respective office holiday parties. It’s about exchanging strategies, pep talks, and well-timed humor.

I believe Paul Reiser once extolled the benefits of dual parenting as having someone to “talk you out of your tree” when caretaking challenges have made you crazy. I think there’s room for some crossover wisdom here. When you make a new health commitment, you’ll at times be processing cravings and inclinations “unreasonable” in the context of your health goals. Maybe on a particularly stressful day, you’ll want to fall back into old, “comforting” habits that undo the good you’ve done the rest of the day. You might hit a new wall as you realize you need to develop new, healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress and busyness of everyday life (or an unsupportive partner at home). That’s where it can help to have a health buddy – an empathetic sounding board and a calm, rational voice to talk you down from whatever tree you’re in. Later, when it’s his/her turn to have a down day, you can return the favor.

Yes, there are some potential downsides to the buddy arrangement. There are the logistics, to be sure. Then there’s the diplomatic dance around each other’s missteps, misgivings, or disparities. One person, for example, might make more progress or make it more quickly than the other. Even if you’re both equally matched and successful, at some point your paths will likely diverge. (It’s all part of owning the healthy living experience and making it your own!) Some personal relationships/health partnerships can take this eventual departure from the original project. Some can’t. Your relationship with this person might end up better for the endeavor, but – then again – it might be compromised by it.

Listen to your gut and think about your history as well as the conflicting interests. If the buddy deal falls through, will it make a key work relationship awkward? Has your relationship with this person been fraught with emotional games or thin-skinned drama? Does this person have a history reliable and consistent enough to make a commitment with? Do you? After all, it’s about your end of the deal as much as it is theirs. Are you up for that level of interpersonal collaboration right now in your life? It’s O.K. to say no. There are other ways to infuse some social support and accountability into your health ventures.

Some of us have close friends or family members who we feel comfortable sharing this journey with. Simultaneously, others choose to forge supportive relationships less entangled in their personal lives. These days, it’s easy to turn to the Internet if you’re looking for running clubs, sports teams, etc. There are health groups and fitness clubs that offer partnership/mentor services as well as personal training options. (If you’re addressing a chronic illness, check out a local support chapter and try to find someone into – or at least open to – your Primal goals.) Also, if you feel you need some deeper emotional work or confidence building to facilitate your health progress, a professional coach might be a good choice.

In a broader scheme, some health insurance plans offer personal online/phone coaching. A few employers actually give you a financial incentive to use the services. (Keep in mind, however, that the guidance you’ll receive won’t be Primally-minded.) If you want accountability and guidance from a more objective or professional collaboration, these might be good options. Alternatively, certain fitness classes at the gym require you to reserve a spot or are small enough that absences are conspicuous. That obligation might be enough for those with a proclivity toward personal diligence and guilt.

And who could forget the best workout partners – Primal man and woman’s best friend? No, seriously. (How many of you are nodding your heads out there?) A University of Missouri study divided participants from an assisted living center into three groups – a control group, a group in which subjects were free to chose (human) friends and spouses to walk with each day and one in which participants walked local shelter dogs daily. The subjects who walked the dogs put the human buddies to shame, hands down. Not only did the dog walkers experience a bigger boost in fitness confidence and balance, they increased their walking speed by a jaw-dropping 28% (compared to 4% in the human buddy group). Even the researchers were astounded. Dog lovers, I think, understand perfectly.

Finally, let us not forget this venerable community of individuals right here in our Primal backyard. Many a mentorship and friendship have been forged here (and even a relationship or two). How about hopping on the forum and putting a call out for a virtual buddy to get you through the holiday obstacle course? I’m quite sure you’ll get a rousing response.

MDA folks, what say you? Do you have a spouse or friend that you’ve relied on to help you achieve your health and fitness goals? Share your thoughts, successes, and suggestions for making the most of the buddy system. Tell us how you’ve made a health partnership work for you. Thanks for reading today.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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