Invest in relationships; they are just as important as diet or exercise

Growing up, my dad always shared these one-liners with me. He was (and still is) never one to belabor a point. Brevity was more his thing.

At the time, I thought these snippets of advice were just dad being dad. I liked how they rolled off the tongue more than the meaning behind them.

“You are who you hang out with,” he told me more times than I can remember. Of course, I thought this was merely a caution about choosing my friends and the social situations I entered; more in a staying-out-of-trouble sense, though. “I was an all-state soccer player on the road to playing for a top division I university, and an honors student,” I reasoned.

Fast forward to a couple years ago. I’m establishing myself in my career and learning a lot about business, management, and finding my way as a professional. Then I heard the well-known quote by Jim Rohn for the first time, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Okay, maybe there’s something to my dad’s advice from all those years ago.

Social relationships really matter for long-term health, and potentially just as much as other things we typically think of, like diet and exercise.

This was the finding from a new study that examined the link between aspects of social relationships (e.g., social integration, social support, and social strain) and objective biomarkers of physical health, such as C-reactive protein (marker of inflammation), systolic and diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass index. The researchers also looked at these associations across the lifespan, giving a more complete longitudinal picture.

Quoting from the paper, here’s what they found:

“We found that a higher degree of social integration was associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation in a dose–response manner in both early and later life. Conversely, lack of social connections was associated with vastly elevated risk in specific life stages.”

Let’s take this in two parts.

First, individuals with a higher degree of social connectedness had a lower BMI, lower blood pressure, smaller waist circumference, and less inflammation. These trends were also consistent across all stages of life.

social connectedness

Next, looking at social support and strain, researchers found that compared to those with the lowest perceived social support, those with the highest perceived social support had lower blood pressure at old age, lower waist circumference at young and middle age, and lower BMI at young and middle age.

social strain

The most fascinating part is how this all compares to the effect of diet and physical activity on health. One comparison from the paper relates to physical inactivity and inflammation among adolescents. Turns out, social isolation increased inflammation among adolescents to the same degree as physical inactivity. That’s saying something.

In a time when the nature of relationships is radically changing (due to technology, work demands, etc) we shouldn’t lose sight of actually how important they are to our health and well-being.


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