When you want to improve your health, you focus on the basics: eat better and exercise more. But here is something else to consider: your social life. Not how often you go out, but the way relationships and friendships impact your overall health.
Friends are a healthy habit: more so now than ever
On the back of a difficult 2020, focussing on friendships and looking after relationships is more important now than ever. Several studies have been able to show that positive social support, from friends, family or a partner, is closely linked to better mental and physical health. A healthy social life can lower stress levels; improve mood; encourage healthy behaviours and discourage unhealthy ones; improve heart health, improve your recovery from illness, increase the ability to resist stress and improve your immunity.
The power of isolation
The pandemic has left many feeling sad, lonely, and anxious. The virus itself has contributed to physical isolation, but the waiting, wondering, and hoping to return to some sort of normality, has had a far deeper impact on mental health.
Social isolation is linked to higher rates of diseases and mental health conditions, such as depression, and may even set off changes that promote things like inflammation and a lowered immunity. There is research that has shown that the health risks of loneliness are similar to the health risks that come from smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being an alcoholic, abusing drugs, not being active, or being obese. In fact, studies show that loneliness increases the risk of early death by 45% and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64%…. Let that sink in for a minute.
Facebook friends don’t count!
Thanks to social media, we’re more connected than ever before, but also possibly the loneliest. If you think about how you interact with your social media “friends” – by either liking a post or sending a sticking-out-tongue emoji, you’ll understand the difference between that and an actual conversation, in person. Interestingly, before COVID, South Africa has been ranked in the top 10 “loneliest” countries, with around 24% of the population living alone.
Social interaction in the time of COVID
Face to face time with friends and family is powerful in terms of health benefits, but a, Facetime, Google duo session or video chat are equally beneficial. Texting and calling are great, and important, but when it comes to feelings of connectedness, its video that you’re after. One study found that people who regularly used video chat were only half as likely to develop symptoms of depression compared to those who used email, social media, instant messaging or no form of digital communication at all. Why? “Seeing” a friend or loved one in “person”, looking at their facial expressions, returning a smile and sharing familiar glances allows for deeper communication. It also prevents the opportunity for misinterpretation that so often happens with a text typo or emoji.
Prioritise your health by prioritising your social interactions and staying connected. Do this by carving time out every day for meaningful personal interactions. Some examples could be
- Set up a recurring video meeting time (and stick to it). Without this, weeks can go by without touching base
- If you miss movie nights or watching your favourite show as a family, have a “Watch Party” by getting everyone to watch it at the same time, and text each other in the background
- Online board games or multiplayer app games can help generate some healthy competition
- Investigate ways of connecting virtually. Consider doing an online fitness challenge, or a YouTube cooking class with your BFF
If you’re comfortable with meeting up in person, exercise with a friend or arrange a quick catch up over tea (while all the time maintaining your distance). Regardless of how busy you may be, spending 5 to 10 minutes talking, smiling and laughing with give your health a serious boost. Connected conversation with friends and family can make your social life (and theirs!) feel a lot more rewarding.