When we think of good health, we may picture someone who eats a wholesome diet and goes to the gym regularly. We may have our own personal health goals, such as getting more sleep or eating less sugar. But there’s another aspect of health that may be just as important, but is often overlooked: your social life.
Social connections boost health
Studies have shown that having high-quality relationships offers numerous health benefits. This can mean having supportive family and friends as well as a healthy connection with others through community activities or organizations. People who have strong social ties have a lower risk of dying from all causes and a lower risk of certain health problems than those who lack strong social relationships.
An article published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior states that people who have a higher number of quality relationships have a lower risk of:
- Heart disease and/or heart attack
- Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
- High blood pressure
- Some types of cancer
How relationships help your health
Medical research shows that the mind and body are strongly connected. Think about how your thoughts change the way your body feels: an upsetting or stressful event can cause digestive problems, a surge in blood pressure, headache, difficulty sleeping, and much more. These effects can all have a negative impact on health.
But when you have good friends or family to turn to, it gives you a healthy way to cope with stress, which may reduce its damaging effects on your body. Having positive interactions reduces the stress response that can harm a person’s hormonal system, heart, and immune system.
We also know that emotional support from others can boost a person’s mental health, which is directly related to physical health. The World Health Organization states: “There is no health without mental health.”
Having close friends or family members may help give a person a sense of meaning and responsibility. This sense of purpose may encourage someone to choose healthy habits in order to live longer and fulfill their duties to others. In the case of younger people like teenagers, having a supportive peer group means they are less likely to choose risky behaviors like drugs and alcohol.
The flipside: bad relationships are bad for you
This doesn’t mean, however, that all relationships will make you healthier. Some relationships may be detrimental to your health, such as an abusive marriage or a family conflict that causes stress.
These may be obvious examples, but even more subtle relationship problems can also harm your health. Poor quality of marriage is linked to a higher risk of depression and problems with the immune system. Having friends or peers who engage in risky behavior or poor health habits may be “contagious” if it becomes the norm among your group of friends.
How to nurture healthy social ties
All of this information begs the question, “How do I get — and keep — healthy relationships in my life?” There is no simple solution for a troubled marriage or a teenaged son or daughter who is taking too many risks. But utilizing professional health resources in these cases, such as counseling or community support groups, is a good place to start.
If your issue is that you don’t have many close friends, get involved in something you enjoy in order to meet like-minded people. Look for a sports team, community group, religious organization, a charity you can volunteer for, or anything else that appeals to you. Social isolation is damaging to health, so do whatever you can to interact with others in a positive way. Simply getting out and meeting new people instantly boosts your chances of making some new friends.
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