4 Evidence-based benefits of seeking peer support

The Bottom Line

  • Peers are equal to us in aspects such as age, background, or ability. 
  • Seeking support from peers—who can provide advice and encouragement based on lived experience—is a promising strategy for improving health outcomes.   
  • Group therapy/smoking cessation programs increase the chances of successfully quitting smoking, compared to self-help. 
  • Compared to other well-established treatments, standardized peer-led Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) programs and professionally-led Twelve-Step Facilitation (TSF) programs are more effective at increasing abstinence in people battling alcohol use disorder, alcohol abuse, or alcohol dependence. 
  • Frequent one-on-one peer support may improve blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, compared to standard diabetes care.  
  • Peer-led exercise programs and peer-support programs have the potential to help older adults maintain their participation in exercise programs. 
  • Consider accessing virtual peer support programs or services if you’re looking for help with smoking cessation, alcohol abstinence, type 2 diabetes management, and exercise adherence. 

A 'peer' is defined as a person who is equal to us—for example, in age, ability, social status, or background (1;2). Our peers are an important feature of our daily lives. Over the years, they can be our classmates, colleagues, teammates, walking buddies, those who share the same interests as us, and more. Sometimes, our peers are the individuals we turn to when celebrating the best of times and the ones we lean on during the worst of times. The latter is particularly true. Most if not all of us can recall a point in our lives where we sought support from our peers while undergoing hardship, such as a health issue or struggles with behaviours that can have negative implications for our health. Support from those undergoing a similar experience or time in their lives seems like it would be beneficial, especially because these individuals can understand and empathize with what is happening, provide guidance and advice based on their own lived experience, and encourage us to move forward on our own journey (3;4).

But what does the research have to say about leaning on our peers? Here are just a few of the evidence-based benefits of seeking peer support. Click on the links below to learn more.

1. Successfully quit smoking

Millions of Canadians smoke cigarettes (5). Unfortunately, despite the health risks that accompany this activity—such as cancer, heart disease, and early death—quitting is no easy feat (6). One strategy people who smoke can use, either alone or in combination with other treatment options like medication or nicotine replacement therapy, is group therapy or support programs (7;8). Research indicates that engaging in these group-based programs makes you 50% to 130% more likely to successfully quit smoking in comparison to self-help (e.g., getting literature on smoking cessation) (7).

2. Abstain from alcohol use

Almost six million Canadians engage in heavy drinking, which makes them more susceptible to developing alcohol use disorder—a condition with negative effects on one’s cognitive, emotional, and physical health (9-11). Research shows that compared to other well-established treatments, standardized peer-led Alcoholics Anonymous/professionally-led Twelve-Step Facilitation programs are better at increasing abstinence in adults battling alcohol use disorder, alcohol abuse, or alcohol dependence. In fact, those who engage in these generally free and easily accessible programs are 3% to up to 42% more likely to abstain from alcohol use (12).

3. Lower your blood sugar

Over 2.4 million Canadians have diabetes, with type 2 diabetes being the most common form of the disease (13;14). Research illustrates that peer support may help lower blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes, compared to standard diabetes care. Features of effective peer support include having more frequent support sessions (e.g., a minimum of one to two a month) and receiving one-on-one support vs. group support or a combination of both (4). This strategy may be most effective in people with poor blood sugar control (4;15).

4. Keep physically active

Despite the clear health benefits, one in four adults don’t get an enough exercise (16). For older adults, financial, physical, and social barriers, in addition to feeling that their needs are not met by recreational facilities, and the disconnect with those who lead exercise programs due to age gaps may contribute to this lack of physical activity (17-20). Research demonstrates that peer-led exercise programs and peer-support programs may improve adherence to physical activity in older adults (17).

Adapting peer support in times of pandemic

In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic and measures put in place to control it, utilizing in-person peer support programs or services may not be possible or recommended at this time. On the bright side, these types of programs and services can be delivered and accessed virtually through telephones, smartphones, computers, tablets, videoconferencing tools, and mobile applications.

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  1. Merriam-Webster. Peer. [Internet] 2021. [cited April 2021]. Available from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/peer 
  2. Dictionary.com. Peer. [Internet] 2021. [cited April 2021]. Available from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/peer
  3. Dennis CL. Peer support within a health care context: A concept analysis. Int J Nurs Stud. 2003; 40(3):321-332. 
  4. Qi L, Liu A, Qi W, et al. Effectiveness of peer support for improving glycaemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMC Public Health. 2015; 15:471. doi: 10.1186/s12889-015-1798-y.
  5. Statistics Canada. Smokers by age group. [Internet] 2021. [cited April 2018]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1310009610 
  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The health consequences of smoking—50 Years of progress: A report of the surgeon general. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); 2014.
  7. Stead LF, Carroll AJ, Lancaster T. Group behaviour therapy sessions for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Syst Rev. 2017; 3:CD001007. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001007.pub3.
  8. Hajek P. Current issues in behavioral and pharmacological approaches to smoking cessation. Addict Behav. 1996; 21(6):699-707.
  9. Statistics Canada. Heavy drinking, by age group. Internet [2021]. [cited April 2021]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1310009611   
  10. Minozzi S, Saulle R, Rösner S. Baclofen for alcohol use disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018; 11:CD012557. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012557.pub2. 
  11. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2013. 
  12. Kelly JF, Humphreys K, Ferri M. Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs for alcohol use disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020; 3:CD012880. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012880.pub2.    
  13. Statistics Canada. Diabetes, by age group. [Internet] 2021. [cited April 2021]. Available from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1310009607 
  14. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. National diabetes statistics report, 2017. United States: CDC; 2017, 20 p. Available from https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pdfs/data/statistics/national-diabetes-statistics-report.pdf
  15. Tay JHT, Jiang Y, Hong J, et al. Effectiveness of lay-led, group-based self-management interventions to improve glycated hemoglobin (hba1c), self-efficacy, and emergency visit rates among adults with type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Nurs Stud. 2021; 113:103779. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2020.103779. 
  16. World Health Organization. Physical activity. [Internet] 2018. [cited April 2020]. Available form https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity
  17. Burton E, Farrier K, Hill KD, et al. Effectiveness of peers in delivering programs or motivating older people to increase their participation in physical activity: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2018; 36(6): 699-678. 
  18. Baert V, Gorus E, Mets T, et al. Motivators and barriers for physical activity in the oldest old: A systematic review. Ageing Res Rev. 2011; 10:464-474. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2011.04.001. 
  19. Burton E, Farrier K, Lewin G, et al. Motivators and barriers for older people participating in resistance training: A systematic review. J Aging Phys Act. 2016; 25(2):311-324. doi: 10.1123/japa.2015-0289.
  20. Hill AM, Hoffmann T, McPhail S, et al. Factors associated with older patients’ engagement in exercise after hospital discharge. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2011; 92(9): 1395-1403. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2011.04.009.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.