by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner
Important enough to deserve a National Friendship Day, discover how friends can improve your health …
The first Sunday of every August is dedicated to celebrating friendships. Although probably passed unnoticed by most, it is a reminder of the importance loved ones have in our lives. Researchers are investing increasing amounts of time to determine the cause for the strong link between friendships and overall health.
With social focus mainly on family and marriage, the impact friends have on our lives is often ignored. However, some experts believe friendships have a larger psychological impact on our well-being than familial ties. A psychology professor, Bella DePaulo, focuses research on single people and friendships. Through many studies, she has discovered friendship can have a greater effect on health than a spouse or other family member. As the saying attests: Friends are the family we choose for ourselves. Evidently, a strong statement, indeed.
A six-year study of 736 middle-aged men found attachment to a single person did not affect the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease. However, friendships did. Lack of social support was as significant a risk factor as smoking. Wow!
Perhaps because these folks are outside our familial bounds, we gain unique comfort by their presence. They can remain objective in our everyday crisis and scenarios more easily than those within our household. Also, friends are a bouquet of variety. One may be the advice-giver, another a workout buddy, another a comedian, or a health guru, a colleague, a parent. Each one has his/her strengths to share, and we call upon them (perhaps subconsciously) based on our needs.
Lighten the Load
A study out of the University of Virginia took 34 students to the base of a hill and fit them with filled backpacks. They were required to estimate the hill’s steepness. Those who stood next to friends had lower estimates of the steepness than those who stood alone. Additionally, the longer the friendship’s duration, the less steep the hill appeared. A burden halved; a joy doubled.
These studies provide excellent incentive to work out with a buddy. With a companion by your side, the climber may feel less steep, the miles on the treadmill less tiring, and the reps less strenuous. You may be capable of working out longer and harder with a friend at your side. Or, s/he may instigate a little competitive spirit to help you achieve your next level of fitness.
Although you may not be inspired to run a marathon or take up a new sport, exercising with a friend does help you commit to fitness. Research proves those who work out with a fitness partner better maintain a consistent fitness routine. The benefits do not require you to always visit the Center in unison. Meeting for one class out of your weekly routine can be enough to keep motivated all other days.
Take advantage of Center incentives to bring a friend. Special events or classes often allow members to bring a guest. You will have the benefit of a friend’s company. Your friend may have the long-term benefit of being introduced to fitness. Nutrition seminars and health fairs also provide opportunities to invite friends to participate in your healthy lifestyle. Both of you can reap the reward of spending time on self-improvement through healthier living.
If you don’t know anyone at your fitness level, take note of others who enjoy similar exercise equipment or classes. Befriend them! It is easier to form strong connections with those who share similar interests. If they are working out when you do, their schedule is probably also similar to yours. A simple exchange can lead to conversations. Eventually, you may seek out each other and look forward to updates on your progress or the latest sports talk.
A workout buddy also may help improve your health by acting as a companion in your wellness journey. Spend time among those who share your values, or possess characteristics you’d like to have. This is an effective way to nourish yourself to be your best and reach goals. If you spend time with happy, healthy people, by nature you will be inclined to be happy and healthy. Research proves the opposite true also: If you surround yourself with negativity, it is easy to succumb to the same negative state, including picking up negative habits along the way.
A study of approximately 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as those with 10 or more friends. Proximity and frequency of contact with friends was not associated with survival. Worry not– if your friends are few and far away, they still radiate positivity.
Studies published in the journal PLOS Medicine compared the health risks of being isolated to those of obesity and smoking. Loneliness is a significant health risk. Friendships are proven to help you regain health after a major illness, as well as help you maintain current health.
Supportive relationships help manage stress, which prevents stress hormones from doing damage. The stress hormone cortisol can have detrimental effects on the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems. Cortisol also is a culprit in belly fat, causing detrimental effects on your waistline as well as heart health.
A two-year study followed 500 women with suspected coronary artery disease. Those with a strong support system were more likely to be alive after two years. An added perk– their rates of hypertension and diabetes also were lower. Some attribute this back to cortisol production. Loneliness increases cortisol production, which can lead to higher blood pressure and hormonal imbalances. Research also suggests social exclusion is registered as physical pain by the nervous system. Heartache.
We take countless measures every day to expand our time on earth. We do everything from flossing teeth to getting brakes checked on the car. Add one more task to the list: Make a friend. Having good friends increases longevity even more than close relationships with adult children and other family members, according to the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging. For a full decade, about 1,500 seniors were studied. Those with the largest amount of close friends outlived those with the smallest amount by 22 percent.
Friends also seem to keep our brains fresh. Along with increasing our longevity, they manage to help maintain or improve our quality-of-life. Researchers surveyed the 75-year-and-older set. They determined those who kept in contact with a variety of friends and relatives had a lower risk of developing dementia.
The process of managing multiple relationships is thought to keep the brain sharp. Perhaps friendships also encourage us to move outside our comfort zone and try new things, even if only a different card game or spectator sport. This, too, helps the brain continue growing.
Take the Time
As we grow older, friendships often slip from the priority list. Thought to be a gift we give ourselves, like many other self-indulgences, there just does not seem to be time or energy for it. Make time for these special people. Journey through life with companionship of all forms. The investment yields healthy returns. Grow a friendship today. Start with a simple but powerful tool– a smile.
“5 Health Benefits of Friendship,” by Diana Vilibert at www.care2.com.
“Friendships Enrich Your Life and Improve Your Health,” at www.mayoclinic.com.
“What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” by Tara Parker-Pope at www.nytimes.com.
Mountain hikers: www.flickr.com/photos/keremtitiz/265408685
Athletic friends: www.flickr.com/photos/78785411@N07/8025570966