Ask anyone what it means to be healthy and you will often hear the same few answers. Exercise a few times a week, get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, avoid too much alcohol and don’t let chronic stress get on top of you. But research published earlier this year has discovered that forming and maintaining good social connections is also important for overall health and wellbeing. In fact, recent research has shown that your social connections can have as big of an impact on your health as regular exercise.
About the research
The study was conducted by researchers at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. It was the first formal research to significantly link social relationships to several concrete measures of physical health, including high blood pressure, abdominal obesity and inflammation – all of which have been proven to be early signs of more serious health issues such as cancer, strokes and heart attacks. The team of researchers looked at four massive individual studies covering a total of 14,000 individuals. These studies were longitudinal – meaning they measured the participant’s social connections and health over an extended period of time to record any influence of one on the other.
How did the researchers measure the link between social ties and general health?
The research captured the range and quality of participant’s social connections by looking at a number of factors. These included marital status, number of friends, religious ties and other integration within the community. The quality of these social connections was also measured by asking participants about the positive effects of the relationships – for example, whether their friends and relatives were loving, caring, critical, supportive, annoying or argumentative. In order to measure health, the researchers also looked at four individual markers which together are reliable indicators of everyday stress. These were waist circumference, blood pressure, body mass index and the abundance of a particular C-reactive protein that is a signal of inflammation. The researchers made the presumption that social relationships improved health by helping to offset the effects of stress – therefore affecting the measurements of these four factors.
Size matters – at least for adolescents and the elderly
The research showed that the size of an individual’s social network was more important than the quality of the social connections themselves when it came to teenagers and the elderly. Surprisingly, social isolation was shown to be equally detrimental to the risk of inflammation as a lack of physical activity, and social integration was proven to protect against abdominal obesity. In old-age participants social isolation was shown to be more harmful than developing diabetes.
Quality relationships are more important for the middle-aged
For participants aged 30-50, it was instead the quality of the social relationships that was most important for general good health. For example, did the relationships provide support or strain? This makes more sense for middle adults, as at this age many of us will naturally have a greater number of social connections – perhaps with colleagues, friends, children and parents.
It’s important to spend time with loved ones
A key conclusion we can draw from this research is the importance of spending time with our families and other loved ones. It can be easy to neglect or fail to give the required attention to those closest to us when work pressure builds up or a tight deadline is fast approaching, but at these stressful times it is perhaps more important than ever to dedicate some time to our loved ones. Whether it is a meal out with a group of close friends, a night in on the sofa with our partner or taking our children to a club or sports activity at the weekend, fostering these close social connections has been proven to be beneficial to our physical health. So you should take the time to make sure you aren’t skipping on them the next time you feel like you have a million things to do.
The importance of kindness and giving back to others
It has long been known that acts of kindness can do wonders for our physical and mental health. From little things like helping an old lady to cross the street, to regularly giving money to charities, the warm feeling associated with acts of kindness can do wonders for our mood. It goes without saying that this can help to alleviate the symptoms of stress. Taking the results of the research into account, acts of kindness will logically also improve our physical health by fostering and strengthening our social connections. Being kind to others can only lead to improved and increased social connections with others – by extension, boosting our health over the long-term by providing greater support during times of stress or upset. And when we feel like these positive social connections have helped us through tough times, it is important to express our gratitude and give back to others when they are stressed or otherwise in need. By being a stress buffer to others, not only do we get a deep sense of satisfaction from the knowledge that we have helped them to be happier, but we continue to strengthen the relationships that will in turn help us out when we need it the most.
Do you think there is enough emphasis in today’s society on the importance of building social relationships and the positive effects they can have on our health? Will you act differently towards others with the knowledge that this can have such a significant impact on you physically?