Obesity is partially a social phenomenon, with college students particularly vulnerable to changes in social networks and obesity-related behaviors. Currently, little is known about the structure of social networks among college students and their potential influence on diet and physical activity behaviors. The purpose of the study was to examine social influences impacting college students’ diet and physical activity behaviors, including sources of influence, comparisons between sources’ and students’ behaviors, and associations with meeting diet and physical activity recommendations.
Data was collected from 40 students attending college in Hawaii. Participants completed diet and physical activity questionnaires and a name generator. Participants rated nominees’ influence on their diet and physical activity behaviors as well as compared nominees' behaviors to their own. Descriptive statistics were used to look at perceptions of influence across network groups. Logistic regression models were used to examine associations between network variables and odds of meeting recommendations.
A total of 325 nominations were made and included: family (n = 116), college friends (n = 104), high school friends (n = 87), and significant others (n = 18). Nearly half of participants were not from Hawaii. Significant others of non-Hawaii students were perceived to be the most influential (M(SD) = 9(1.07)) and high school friends the least influential (M(SD) = 1.31(.42)) network. Overall, perceived influence was highest for diet compared to physical activity, but varied based on comparisons with nominees’ behaviors. Significant others were most often perceived has having similar (44 %) or worse (39 %) eating behaviors than participants, and those with similar eating behaviors were perceived as most influential (M(SD) = 9.25(1.04)). Few associations were seen between network variables and odds of meeting recommendations.
Among the groups nominated, high school friends were perceived as least influential, especially among students who moved a long distance for college. Intervention strategies addressing perceived norms and using peer leaders may help promote physical activity among college students, while diet interventions may need to involve significant others in order to be successful. Testing of these types of intervention strategies and continued examination of social networks and their influences on diet and physical activity behaviors are needed.