Going out and being social when you’re trying to get healthier — whether to lose weight or train for a race — can be a challenge. Not only is peer pressure real, but there are so many temptations that even a willpower of steel can’t withstand.
“Part of it is the fear of the unknown,” says Brooke Zigler, a registered dietitian. It’s only natural to wonder: What food will be served at the party? What if there are no good food options for me? Will I be tempted to eat food that won’t help me reach my goals?
For most people, behaviors that veer off course like staying up late, drinking alcohol and eating large amounts of “off-plan” foods are more tempting in a social setting than when hanging out at home. That’s why some people choose to skip social activities entirely when pursuing a health or fitness goal.
While there’s nothing wrong with regularly practicing self-care by relaxing at home, you don’t have to decide between keeping up with your social circle and accomplishing your goals. “I often discuss with my clients that you can be both social and healthy, and that it doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing,’ says Rachel Goldman, PhD, a licensed psychologist in NYC and Clinical Assistant Professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.
“You are in control of your behaviors and you can continue to make healthy choices and not feel restricted,” Dr. Goldman says. “When you always RSVP ‘no,’ you are actually making it harder for yourself because you are restricting yourself in other ways — and that’s not sustainable.”
WHY STAYING SOCIAL IS IMPORTANT
In the case of weight loss in particular, it’s crucial to continue to put yourself in social situations throughout the process. “Losing weight is hard but, maintaining your weight loss is even harder,” Zigler says. If you lose weight by exclusively eating at home, you’re sort of setting yourself up for failure when you are finished with your weight loss. “You inevitably will want to dine out,” Zigler points out. “It is incredibly important to be able to learn to eat for the rest of your life, at home, at restaurants and in social situations!”
Going out is also a good opportunity to “test out” new strategies you’ve come up with to deal with temptation, says Emily Field, a registered dietitian. “Sure, anyone can ‘quit sugar’ or ‘detox’ for a short, finite amount of time, but figuring out how to work around events, holidays, vacations and more makes us stronger in the lifelong maintenance of these habits.”
There’s also the fact that getting together with friends and family has legit psychological benefits. “Social interaction and social support are so important for everything, but people find social support particularly useful when trying to accomplish certain goals, including health and fitness goals,” Dr. Goldman says. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to RSVP “yes” to every event or get-together you’re invited to, but if you’re strategic about it, being social can actually add to your motivation to accomplish what you’re after.
FACTORS TO CONSIDER
To make choices that support your goals, you’ll have to evaluate each social opportunity that comes your way on a case-by-case basis, experts say. Here’s what they want you to consider before saying “yes” or “no.”
Is it a rare occasion?
You probably don’t want to miss a wedding, graduation or the chance to welcome a new baby into the family. “No matter what your health or fitness goals, there are ways to stay on track while also being a part of events that only come along once or twice in a lifetime,” Field says. “Don’t skip events that you’d regret not being a part of years down the road.”
Are the other attendees supportive of your goals?
“Staying in is the right choice when you know the group of friends or the event you are attending is not a supportive environment,” Dr. Goldman says. For example, it may not be worth going out if you are meeting with friends who binge drink and stay up all night if you know those are two things you don’t want to do.
How do you think you’ll feel afterwards?
The feeling that you have after a decision or behavior is key. “As our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all linked, that feeling is going to lead to other (positive or negative) thoughts, which is then going to lead to your next behavior,” Dr. Goldman explains. “So, if you are going to feel bad about not going, then go. Similarly, if you are going to feel bad about going ‘off your food plan’ or having an alcoholic beverage, then don’t, but find a way to still go and be social, even if you have to just stop by and leave early.”
Did you already go out this week?
If you have been going out a lot, maybe it would be good to reevaluate your goals and make a decision between what is most important to you, Dr. Goldman says. “We need to find balance in life, and having a healthy lifestyle is all about being OK with that balance.”
Is whatever you’re going to eat/drink/do worth it?
“If you feel like it’s not worth it to you, then don’t do it,” Zigler says. “You shouldn’t feel like you need to give into peer pressure. Make plans to see them another time and help suggest places where you feel comfortable eating and where there are options for everyone.”
How long have you been working toward this goal?
“In other words, are you settled into a groove of healthy eating, regular exercise, quality sleep and you know it would not be hard for you to get right back on track if you decided to indulge?” Field asks. “Depending on your answer and how much momentum you have built, you might decide it’s ‘worth it’ to attend.”
STRATEGIES FOR STAYING ON TRACK
Often, the answer is to go to a social event, but do your best to stay on your program. That’s easier said than done, but there are some smart ways to help yourself feel in control.
Practice flexible thinking.
Sometimes, you have to get a little creative to make social plans work. “If you typically go to the gym after work but you have a happy hour tomorrow evening, then maybe wake up earlier tomorrow do your workout in the morning,” Dr. Goldman suggests. “This way, you can still be sticking to your plan, working on your goals and being social without feeling guilty.”
Look up the menu ahead of time.
If you’re going to a bar or restaurant, this is key. “I always give my clients this advice because it is the best way of setting yourself up for success,” Zigler says. “You can decide on exactly what you will order, and then spend more time socializing while you’re out rather than focusing on the menu.”
Offer to bring something.
“If you’re going to a party or dinner at someone’s home, offer to bring a dish,” Zigler suggests. “ This way, you can bring something that you will enjoy and is part of your nutrition plan.”
Say upfront that you’ll need to leave early.
“Do you have an early run in the morning? Meet your friends but let them know you are going to head out early because you are going on a run,” recommends Amy Goldsmith, a registered dietitian.
Have a snack beforehand.
“If the restaurant hasn’t been selected yet or you aren’t able to bring a dish with you to someone’s dinner party, eat a filling snack ahead of time,” Zigler says. “This will enable you to avoid making decisions based on extreme hunger. Rather, you can make smarter choices even if your options are not as ideal.”
Simply say you’re not drinking.
“Don’t feel like drinking? Let your friends know you are taking a break and sip on seltzer or club soda,” Goldsmith says. “Better yet, you can volunteer to be the designated driver.”
Don’t give in to peer pressure.
Remember, no one will ever force you to eat or drink or do something you don’t want to. “Sure, triggers and temptations exist,” Field says. “Pressure exists from people, places, events, social circles. Expectations also exist. But, if you remember that you always have a choice and you are entitled to do everything in your power to feel how you want to feel, you will make the best decision for yourself in any given situation.”