Your Friends Can Help Predict Your Health Better Than A Fitness Tracker, A New Study Says

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When trying to improve their health, many people look to wearable fitness trackers to measure their progress and help them set goals. Recording their steps might help you increase your frequency of exercise, being mindful of your heart rate might help manage stress, and monitoring your sleeping patterns might help ensure that you're not experiencing burnout or fatigue. But a new University of Notre Dame study says that you might want to also take your relationship with your friends and family into account, too.

The researchers say that analyzing your social group structures along with your wearable data can provide an even more complete picture of health. The study, published in the Public Library of Science Journal (PLOS ONE), showed that there was a strong correlation between social network structures, heart rate, number of steps, and levels of activity. In evaluating the health of those social network structures, the researchers examined connectivity, social balance, reciprocity, and closeness. The researchers used data about the subjects' social structures to improve predictions about the subjects' health, according to a press release on the study.

Certain beliefs, opinions, behaviors, and attitudes can be spread throughout social circles. But it’s important to remember that our social circles have a great impact on our physical well-being as well — and they can keep us healthy. When researchers used both social network structures and Fitbit data in their analysis, they found that they were able to achieve a 65% improvement in predicting happiness, a 55% improvement in predicting positive attitudes, and a 38% improvement in predicting success.

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While this study was specifically focused on how this plays out in terms of workplace benefits, it's helpful for anyone who's been a little too obsessed with their step tracker or who wants to consider the role of their social life in their health.I don’t use a fitness tracker, but the findings about the importance of social structure and health certainly hit close to home for me. After moving 2,000 miles away from all my family and friends, I noticed that I experienced a lot more health issues: painful anxiety symptoms, weight gain, and complex migraines. Even though I moved to Colorado, known for being the most physically active state in the U.S., the loss of my dependable social network physically affected me much more than I thought it would.

It’s also important to remember that using wearables may actually cause more harm than good. A study in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology journal showed that the trackers didn’t improve their subjects’ health and the people who used them actually were — health-wise — worse off than those who didn’t. And some experts say that using wearable fitness trackers can make technology addiction worse, and increase feelings of guilt when goals aren’t met. Analyzing the behavior patters of 493 college students, another 2017 study published in Elsevier showed a link between fitness trackers and disordered eating.

In a world that sometimes seems almost too obsessed with numbers, these findings urge us to take a moment of reflection. When taking a holistic views towards your health, it’s important to factor in your relationships in your analysis. Sometimes, sitting in the park with a good friend can do you more good than trying to reach a certain number of steps.