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People try many ways to keep down their weight, but sometimes the only option appears to be surgery to lose weight. And that may have surprising benefits for friends and family. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: As a doctor, Gary Wisner knew all about the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet. As an orthopedic surgeon, he also knew that excess weight was harmful for the joints. Even so, as years went by, his weight went up and up. He weighed 288 pounds at 5-foot-7.

DR. GARY WISNER: I would go on a diet. I would lose weight. Then I'd put it back on. So my rebound was out of control as anything. No matter what I did, I would put my weight back on.

NEIGHMOND: His medications for diabetes and hypertension were beginning to fail. The last resort, says Wisner: surgery to reduce his stomach size and his appetite.

WISNER: My weight is 169 pounds. And I fluctuate, occasionally, to 173 - and I go back down to 169. So for the last five years, I have been between 169 and 173 pounds.

NEIGHMOND: A total weight loss of over 110 pounds. And in an interesting twist, it wasn't just Wisner who benefitted from the surgery. His family did, too.

WISNER: My daughter would be considered obese, and she dropped weight dramatically. My wife would just be, I would say, overweight, and she went back down to her ideal body weight.

NEIGHMOND: Now, it turns out this is somewhat typical. Dr. John Morton performed Wisner's surgery.

DR. JOHN MORTON: I really do think that obesity is a family disease.

NEIGHMOND: Morton directs bariatric surgery at Stanford University.

MORTON: We all gather around the table to enjoy a meal together, and we learn lessons when we do that. Just like you impart morals to your sons and your daughters, you can do the same thing around the dinner table as well. And it can be either good or bad, you know. We see that all the time.

NEIGHMOND: Studies show that friends and family gain weight together. But over the years, Morton also noticed the opposite. Like Gary Wisner's family, the overweight sons, daughters and spouses of his bariatric patients lost weight, too.

So Morton decided to do a formal study, and track families of 35 patients who had gastric bypass. One year after the surgery, other obese family members did indeed lose weight, between eight and 45 pounds.

MORTON: This was noteworthy in that these patients were able to accomplish that just by coming to the same visits that the bariatric surgery patient did.

NEIGHMOND: The so-called halo effect.

MORTON: I think most of the family members who came wanted to help out their spouse or their dad, or whoever it might be. And they wanted to support them, and they supported them by making healthy food choices, exercising together.

NEIGHMOND: Family members lost about 4 to 5 percent of their initial body weight, enough weight loss to bring down the risk of obesity-related heart disease and diabetes.

Now, another study across the country turned up similar findings, but not just with family. Tricia Leahey is a psychologist at Brown University.

TRICIA LEAHEY: Shape Up Rhode Island is an annual competition that occurs in the state of Rhode Island, and individuals join with co-workers, friends, family members...

NEIGHMOND: ...who make up teams - about four to 10 people. They compete to see which team loses the most weight over three months. Leahey found the biggest losers were on the same teams - suggesting significant social influence, even on the job.

LEAHEY: Your co-worker a couple of doors down says, you want to go out to lunch? And you might choose to go to a salad shop versus a pizza joint, to keep your calories low and achieve your weight-loss goals with each other. Whereas if you didn't necessarily have that person there, you don't necessarily have that accountability that that...

NEIGHMOND: Leahey says more states, and work sites, are setting up weight-loss competitions similar to the one in Rhode Island, and that could offer a hopeful sign in battling the nation's obesity epidemic – socially contagious weight loss.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And that's "Your Health" for this Monday morning.

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