The Power of Social Networks and Social Support in Promotion of Physical Activity and Body Mass Index among African American Adults

Abstract Social support and social networks can elucidate important structural and functional aspects of social relationships that are associated with health-promoting behaviors, including Physical Activity (PA) and weight. A growing number of studies have investigated the relationship between social support, social networks, PA and obesity specifically among African Americans; however, the evidence is mixed and many studies focus exclusively on African American women. Most studies have also focused on either functional or structural aspects of social relationships (but not both) and few have objectively measured moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and body mass index (BMI). Cross-sectional surveys of adult African American men and women living in two low-income predominantly African American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, PA (N=799) measured numerous structural features as well as functional aspects of social relationships. Specifically, structural features included social isolation, and social network size and diversity. Functional aspects included perceptions of social support for physical activity from the social network in general as well as from family and friends specifically. Height, weight, and PA were objectively measured. From these, we derived Body Mass Index (BMI) and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). All regression models were stratified by gender, and included age, income, education, employment, marital status, physical limitations, and a neighborhood indicator. Greater social isolation was a significant predictor of lower BMI among men only. Among women only, social isolation was significantly associated with increased MVPA whereas, network diversity was significantly associated with reduced MVPA. Future research would benefit from in-depth qualitative investigations to understand how social networks may act to influence different types of physical activity among African Americans, as well as understand how they can be possible levers for health promotion and prevention.