The Importance of Community

From Dr. Mark Hyman, Author of Eat Fat, Get Thin

My patients and readers tell me that one of the biggest obstacles they face on their path towards better health is lack of support.

I always say that getting healthy is a team sport, and unfortunately, many of us are lacking the positive encouragement and supportive relationships we need in order to move toward our best selves.

Psychological researcher, George Slavich, of the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies human social genomics, says that our genes can actually be turned on or off depending on our social environments. Studies show that compared to people who are socially connected, those living in isolation are more likely to suffer from viral infections and inflammation.

This means that feeling socially isolated can actually make you sick!

Dr. Slavich also points to evidence, which shows that social stress is a stronger predictor of chronic disease-related mortality than physical inactivity, alcohol use, and smoking.

I think you’re getting the idea that social connectedness matters. In fact, community is more effective than any medication, even though many still use less than optimal and outdated nutritional advice and lifestyle interventions.

Even doctors frustrated with the failure of medication to treat their patients with chronic illness, obesity, and diabetes, are starting small groups with 8 to 30 patients and meeting weekly to teach them about nutrition, cooking, shopping, exercise, stress management, and more.

In fact, two Portland doctors came up to me after a lecture I gave and told me about their program for poor undocumented Hispanic women with chronic symptoms, obesity, and diabetes. For very little money (about $15 per person), they successfully guided these women to health in a program they called Reclamado su Salud (or Reclaim your Health) using a program based on The Blood Sugar Solution (which I have taught at many medical conferences).

Their group of 20 women met weekly for 5 classes, then every 2 weeks for a total of 8 three-hour classes. The weight loss ranged from 5 to 20 pounds, blood pressures dropped an average of 10-20 points, and depression and inflammation scores dropped significantly.

In 2013, I wrote the Daniel Plan with Pastor Rick Warren and Dr. Daniel Amen based off a group program we created at the Saddleback Church, which included thousands of people. We literally built this program from the ground up. Our goal was to challenge people over six weeks through the principles of Functional Medicine and social connection. Beyond just food, we brought in foundations like meditation and exercise to help people transform their lives. We also used the power of social networks to hold people accountable and help them to reach their goals.

The results were equally astounding. Warren’s congregations lost a quarter of a million pounds (collectively) in 10 months. In the bargain, they also improved things like depressionacneautoimmune disease, and migraines.

The congregation put a farm and garden on the church campus. They developed exercise courses. They really committed to transforming their health. Suddenly, the culture changed. It became cool to be healthy rather than joining in on the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts.

I encourage you to form groups like these because they can make a huge difference. These examples represent just the beginning of what is possible when we work together. We are social beings and thrive with connection. 

Considering that you literally become like the people you surround yourself with, your social circle influences you to some degree.

Here are my tips for building community:

1. Start an accountability group with your friends and family. Whether you meet up with these folks for tea or coffee once a week or hop on a group call, an accountability group is a great way to talk about your goals and challenges.

2. Join an exercise class. I’ve met some amazing friends at yoga and other fitness groups. Zumba, yoga, cycling, etc. Classes are a great way to meet friends who share common goals.

3. Find an online community! In this digital age, we can meet people from all over the world. I run a Facebook 10-Day Detox group, and I can’t tell you how many of these members have become close friends.

4. Start your own meet-up. Services like meetup.com offer a way to create community. Whether it be a book club, cooking group, or a fitness group, meetup.com has something for everyone.

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