Partner Influence in Diet and Exercise Behaviors: Testing Behavior Modeling, Social Control, and Normative Body Size

PLoS One. 2016 Dec 29;11(12):e0169193. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169193. eCollection 2016.


Previous research has documented social contagion in obesity and related health behaviors, but less is known about the social processes underlying these patterns. Focusing on married or cohabitating couples, we simultaneously explore three potential social mechanisms influencing obesity: normative body size, social control, and behavior modeling. We analyze the association between partner characteristics and the obesity-related health behaviors of focal respondents, comparing the effects of partners' body type, partners' attempts to manage respondents' eating behaviors, and partners' own health behaviors on respondents' health behaviors (physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption, and fast food consumption). Data on 215 partners are extracted from a larger study of social mechanisms of obesity in family and community contexts conducted in 2011 in the United States. Negative binomial regression models indicate that partner behavior is significantly related to respondent behavior (p < .001), net of controls. These results are suggestive of a behavior modeling mechanism in obesity-related patterns of consumption and physical activity. In contrast, we find little support for the influence of normative body size or partner social control in this sample, though generalizations about the relevance of these processes may be inappropriate. These results underscore the importance of policies and interventions that target dyads and social groups, suggesting that adoption of exercise or diet modifications in one individual is likely to spread to others, creating a social environment characterized by mutual reinforcement of healthy behavior.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Body Size*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Fruit
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Nutritive Value
  • Sexual Partners / psychology*
  • Vegetables

Grant support

This research was funded by the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky and by the Office of the Vice President for Research at Indiana University through the Collaborative Research and Creative Activity Fund, and supported by the Indiana University Network Science Institute. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.