This sponsored post is produced in association with Humana.

Half of American adults have at least one chronic disease, such as diabetes, obesity, or heart disease. The Center of Disease Control estimates that these illnesses make up 70% of deaths in the U.S. Chronic diseases not only cause pain and daily activity limitations for the individual, but are also a huge economic burden for society.

Several risk factors for chronic diseases are well known: smoking, lack of physical activity, and poor nutrition. These are factors everyone has a chance to take control over. However, often we fail to do so. So how can unhealthy habits be changed?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tina Rosenberg’s argues in her book, Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, that the search for status and peer approval is the most powerful motivator of our personal behavior. This can then be used to encourage good habits. Peer pressure fighting the good fight, if you will.

Rosenberg gives a number of examples of how this can be successful, such as in antismoking programs, AIDS awareness campaigns, and in calculus training for minority students. Even social reforms in rural India, and the overthrowing of Slobodan Milošević can happen with the force of peer pressure.

Good health can be contagious

Whether someone has a personal lifestyle goal or wants to fight a dictator, the connection with others is critical in order to achieve that goal. In Bell County, Kentucky, the program Team Up 4 Health has become an example of what communities can achieve when working together. A large number of the 30,000 residents were suffering from chronic illnesses, including one-third being obese, when Humana partnered with Microclinic International, a public health organization, to change that. They created the program that focuses on helping people influence each other to adopt healthy habits.

The residents were invited to join small groups that met twice a week for ten months. The groups received education on nutrition and health, such as how to control portion sizes, manage sugar and fat intake, and read food labels. They also exercised and cooked together, and made grocery store visits.

After the program, 95 percent of the participants improved in at least one of the following measures: weight, body mass index, waist circumference, HDL cholesterol, HbA1c, and blood pressure. Most participants reported increasing their physical activity, and half of them ate healthier.

What’s the key to this positive outcome? The participants describe that it got “contagious”. Lakin Brown, the Team Up 4 Health Program Facilitator, argues that the strong support system that the program created, with community members motivating each other to make positive lifestyle changes, is key to the success.

Peer pressure is obviously just as, or more, important than the pure educational element. Could be we need to make sure that the healthiest kids are the coolest ones.

If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?

So if you don’t live in Bell County, or if you just don’t want to hang out with your neighbors twice a week, what do you do to break a bad habit?

Go online of course (apologies for that year 2002 comment).

Chicago-based WellRight might have what you need. With the bombastic advertisement “If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?”, this wellness platform is aimed towards organized groups or work places. They offer a basic health-screening program, and health risk assessment based on biometrics such as weight, height, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. There are health educational features available for the users, as well as the ability to add on data from a number of third-party sensors and apps to the health tracking. WellRight promises to “take your wellness program to the next level”.

The built-in challenge section is where the peer pressure comes in. Every desired goal (well, more or less) can be customized for the users. How about the recent “Dirty Dish Competition”: Every participant has to cook a meal, post a photo of it, and whoever made the least healthy meal gets to clean the coffee break room dishes for a week. That’s community.

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