Across Communities, a Link Between Encouraging Relationships and Healthy Choices

By Elizabeth Sherwood

Healthy eating and regular exercise are considered key in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. To that end, companies must prominently list ingredients and nutrition facts, employers subsidize gym costs, and mobile apps help track movement and eating habits.

These are all great forms of encouragement to make healthy choices, but what happens when people don’t surround themselves with others who encourage them to follow through? Recent data show the responses vary across the different types of counties in the American Communities Project.

The Wellbeing Index from Gallup and Sharecare indicates that communities in which individuals have someone in their life encouraging them to make healthy choices achieve average levels of health-conscious follow through. These communities are nearly even when it comes to eating healthy, exercising for 30 minutes at least three days a week, and getting five servings of fruits and vegetables at least four days a week.

At the same time, when people don’t have someone who encourages them, they are less likely to make healthy decisions for themselves — which shows up in communities across America.

Evangelical Hubs and African American South Make Least Healthy Choices

Across the 15 community types, people in Evangelical Hubs and the African American South consistently report having the least healthy lifestyles. In the African American South, 44 percent identify as non-healthy eaters with the average of all community types being 38.4 percent. In Evangelical Hubs, the figure ticks up to 41.7 percent.

When it comes to diet composition, the Evangelical Hubs are among the lowest in consumption of fruits and vegetables, with only 53.3 percent getting five servings per day at least four days out of the week. The African American South has marginally higher fruit and vegetable consumption at, 55.4 percent. Across types, the average sits at 56.1 percent.

Both community types encompass a large swath of the South, well known for fatty foods and soul food cooking so these numbers may not be surprising.  

Another factor to take into account: the availability of healthier options in the regions. The County Health Rankings’ Food Environment Index is a good indicator of access to grocery stores, average income, and food insecurity. (The index is a one to 10 scale, with 10 being the highest.) While the national average is seven, many counties in the African American South and Evangelical Hubs score below five. In Mississippi, mostly made up  of African American South communities, the average is 3.6. The lack of access to quality, healthy foods certainly affects people’s ability to eat healthy.

Without accountability, exercise rates drop off. For example, nearly half of the population in the African American South say they exercise for more than 30 minutes a maximum of two days per week. A 2012 focus group study from the National Institutes of Health found that African American men were more likely to participate in physical activity when a peer encouraged them.  The opposite is true, too: they may be more sedentary when their peers lack the motivation to work out.

With Age Comes Wisdom

One group, Graying America, encounters moderate encouragement but still manages to be some of the country’s healthiest eaters. In this community, where nearly a quarter of residents are over 62, accountability is below average. Even though support is wavering, 64.2 percent say they are  healthy eaters, and 59.9 percent eat five servings of fruits and vegetables at least four days per week — both statistics put Graying America in the top three community types for healthy living.

It’s worth noting that Graying America is home to large numbers of retirees.  They might be widows, widowers, or empty nesters who don’t have the same support system as people in other communities. This group also reports some of the most health problems, indicating that healthy diets could be doctors’ orders. If the only encouragement to be healthy comes from doctors and phone calls from their children, individuals in Graying America likely  have a strong internal will developed over their many years of life.

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