People believe that friends and family have as much responsibility for their personal health as do their health care providers, according to the Edelman Health Barometer 2011. After “themselves,” nearly half (43 percent) of respondents believe that their friends and family have the most impact on their lifestyle as it relates to health, and more than a third (36 percent) believe friends and family have the most impact on personal nutrition.

Data also show that people who model a healthier lifestyle fail to connect actively with others who may benefit from their example, knowledge and support. Nearly one third of people (31 percent)—predominantly those with healthier behaviors—tend to distance themselves from friends who engage in unhealthy behaviors. But an even larger proportion (44 percent) does not factor health into their social interactions; this group tends to have less healthy behavior, consume less health information and is least likely to sustain healthy behavior change when they try.

The intensely social nature of health influence was a major theme of global findings from the 15,000-person, 12-country survey.

“Whether we mean to or not, we influence public and personal health in all aspects of our lives,” says Nancy Turett, global president of health at Edelman. “Health, good and bad, is communicable, and it is the responsibility of every citizen, especially those of us with leadership roles in any sector or industry, to act on this.”

The survey reveals an “action gap” between the desire to be healthier and the ability to change. More than half of the global public engages in at least one negative health behavior, such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise or tobacco use. Though 62 percent of respondents said they tried to change a negative health behavior, half of those people failed, primarily because of addiction/dependency and a lack of enjoyment or immediate reward. A lack of ongoing support, from friends, family or other resources, also contributed to an inability to make healthy changes stick.

According to the study, digital tools can be leveraged to support health-positive behaviors. More than half (51 percent) of respondents said they turn to digital sources such as social networks for information when making health decisions, and while only 20 percent of the public is currently using tools, devices and apps to manage or track their own health, 68 percent of those who do say these technologies have helped improve their health.

Globally, 82 percent of respondents believe it is important for business to improve and maintain the health of the public, yet only 32 percent said business is currently doing a good job. People want business to engage in health in a number of specific ways, including through educating the public, innovation, and improving the health of employees and their communities.