HEALTH INSURANCE

Obesity may be contagious: researchers

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Are your friends fit and healthy eaters or more of a beer and pizza crowd? The answer could provide some insight into the current state of your body, research shows.

Researchers at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine examined data from two large suburban high schools.

Over the course of two years, students were surveyed about their weight, friendships, sports activities and television and computer time. Researchers also calculated each student's body mass index (BMI).

The results showed that students were more likely to pack on the pounds if they had friends who were heavier than they were. The converse was also true: students were more likely to lose weight – or gain weight at a slower pace – if they had a slimmer group of friends.

Researchers concluded that friends may influence your lifestyle decisions both directly and indirectly. Directly, your friends may nudge you towards, say going for a run after work or trying out a Pilates class, or conversely, stopping for a greasy midnight snack on the way home from the bar. Indirectly, your mates could influence what you regard as appropriate body size and eating and exercise habits.

Take a load off

Reams of data points out this link between both obesity and thinness and social influence.

For instance, a separate study published in February found that women tend to mimic the eating behaviours of their friends, when dining out.

And the benefits of exercising with friends or like-minded people have long been known. It can offer social inclusion opportunities, physical benefits and psychological support. It's also more fun – studies have shown that exercising together appears to increase the level of feel-good endorphin hormones naturally released during physical exertion.

Before you flick your beer and pizza-loving friends, get healthy together with the help of your health fund and you could get more financial incentive than you think.

To help get you going, when you join an approved weight loss program, gym or health management program, most private health insurance providers will help to foot part of the bill.

Some will even incentivise members to help keep them on track to achieving goals. For instance, on its website, provider Australian Unity claims it will reward members with up to $100 for joining an approved weight loss program (such as Jenny Craig, Sure Slim or Weight Watchers) and another $100 for achieving their goal weight. Stay within 5kg of the goal weight for 12 months and members will be rewarded with a further $150.

Rebates, limits and waiting periods differ between providers though, so contact your insurance company or compare policies online for more information.

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