Jen Juneau
January 05, 2016 1:22 pm

It’s that time of year: Time for new diet and exercise habits that will lead us toward achieving the health-related goals we’ve set out for ourselves via New Year’s resolutions. Now is the time when we all stock our fridges with fruits and veggies, toss out the processed garbage in our pantries (bye bye, Star Wars fruit snacks), and make our way to the gym en masse to take advantage of their $1 sign-up fee.

Well, a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that eating well and moving our butts is only part of the solution to keeping ourselves healthy – the rest may lie in the company we keep, AKA the relationships we have with other people. According to The Washington Post, the study concludes that solid social ties have a positive impact on health because they lead to fewer cases of things like hypertension, obesity, and diabetes over the course of one’s life.

By studying 14,000 subjects in different stages of life, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found many intriguing parallels between social involvement and health. For example, adolescents who were more socially isolated than their peers were just as likely to develop inflammation as those who avoided exercise, and adults with social problems were found to be more susceptible to both inflammation and obesity as they aged. Researchers used measuring sticks in the form of waist circumference, a protein that measures inflammation, body mass index (BMI), and of course, blood pressure – all pretty common indicators of how a person’s stress levels are doing.

“The theory is the social relationships can buffer some of the effects of stress, and/or help with coping,” said Kathleen Mullan Harris, a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center and UNC professor who was also a senior author on the study. “These markers, all together, are good markers of some of the physiological effects of stress — daily stress, not acute stress.”

The researchers also dug in a bit deeper to analyze how the quantity versus quality of personal relationships played a part in people’s overall health, studying elements such as marital status, community involvement, religious affiliation, and numbers of friends. Interestingly, people in the early-adolescent stage of life and those in their later years were found to value the size of their social network more, while those who were closer to middle-aged seemed to value quality of relationships more – which makes sense, considering those in mid-life stages tend to be involved in/juggling involvement in more social realms between having older parents, children, and other friends and family around.

“Do have a good and healthy diet, and exercise; but also try to have a good social life and connections with other people,” added Yang Claire Yang, who was the first author on the study and, like Harris, is a UNC professor and faculty fellow at Carolina Population Center. “Cultivate broad and somewhat deep, functional [relationships]. That’s as important, if not more — and don’t wait until you’re old.”

Bottom line: Don’t be a stranger to the people you love “in the name of good health,” because keeping them around is actually making you healthier by default. So excuse me while I text my best friend and reinstate our weekly hangouts that I may have postponed indefinitely in favor of the gym.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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