Friends and family can be more effective health role models than celebrities

Your mom might be a better health influencer than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a new study finds.

Your mom might be a better health influencer than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Adults in a recent study showed greater motivation to achieve their health goals when they looked up to someone they knew, like a friend, relative, or healthcare provider, rather than a celebrity. Women, in particular, were more inclined than men to choose personal role models over celebrities, with mothers often being the most commonly named role model.

"We know that parents have a huge influence on shaping people’s health trajectories throughout their life just by teaching them about physical fitness and nutrition," said Nicole O'Donnell, a Washington State University communications researcher and lead author of the study. "As this research shows, parents' influence does matter and it's long lasting, even well into adulthood."

The study, published in the journal Health Communication, surveyed 404 adults who were inspired by health role models. Participants answered questions about their chosen role model and their motivation to improve their physical and mental health.

One of the most significant findings was that "perceived similarity" played a crucial role in choosing a role model. About 64% of participants chose a family member, peer, or acquaintance as their health role model.

"If you see a friend get a gym membership or decide to run a half marathon, you can follow their journey, and you also have similar resources to do the same thing," O'Donnell explained. "Celebrities often have personal chefs and trainers—they have a lot of resources that we don't."

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Women in the study were about 2.5 times more likely than men to choose a personal role model. Despite this, many participants of both genders still chose celebrities. Among celebrity role models, The Rock was the most popular choice, followed by LeBron James, Tom Brady, and Michelle Obama.

Although personal role models had a stronger influence, celebrity role models also positively impacted motivation. The way celebrities talk about health can be crucial, O'Donnell pointed out.

"When celebrities and influencers talk about health, it's important they also share their challenges and how they overcame them," she said. "For instance, The Rock's openness about depression helps to destigmatize mental health struggles and makes him a great role model."

Social media was found to amplify the influence of role models.

"Our results found that following any sort of role model on social media helps boost your motivation," said Christina Nickerson, a WSU doctoral candidate and co-author of the study. "It shows there can be a lot of benefits just from thinking about what a role model is to you. Who do you want to be like whether you know that person in real life or not?"

The study also highlighted a potential downside of following a role model's behavior too closely. Some participants reported that their role models engaged in extreme behaviors, such as severely restricting their diet or over-exercising, yet they still found them inspiring.

Overall, the study pointed to the benefits of having a health role model. In the initial survey, a group of people reported not having a healthy role model, and this group had lower mental and physical health than those with role models.

"Look to those around you for people who inspire you," O'Donnell advised. "It's a form of social support that we often overlook because we think of role models as something for kids. But this study, along with others, has shown that role models are important across a person's lifespan, so we should seek them out."

Having a health role model, especially someone personally known, can significantly boost one's motivation to achieve health goals. This influence is long-lasting and extends well into adulthood, highlighting the importance of positive role models in our lives. So, next time you think about getting healthier, you might want to look to your mom or a close friend rather than a celebrity.

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Rebecca Shavit is the Good News, Psychology, Behavioral Science, and Celebrity Good News reporter for the Brighter Side of News.