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The Impact of Relationships on Your Health

The Need for Relationships

Humans are social creatures, we rely on cooperation and social interaction to survive and thrive. Our social bonds are so important, that scientific research has consistently shown that our level of involvement is social relationships is strongly associated with our lifespan; the greater the number and strength of our social bonds, the longer we are likely to live (1). Those we surround ourselves with, and how often and closely we interact with them, influence our mental and physical health in ways you may not have even considered. So, while you are busy addressing the dietary and physical activity components of your holistic health plan, don’t forget to take a break to remind those in your life how much they mean to you.

Social Relationships

Social scientists define “social relationships” as the connections one has with others that involve reoccurring interactions and have some personal value (2). When studying the impact of social relationships, validated tools are used to collect data on three social relationship components:

· Social isolation – the absence of social relationships.

· Social networks – the web of social relationships.

· Quality of relationships – the level of emotional support offered by the relationships and strained aspects such as conflict or stress.

Through various behavioral, psychosocial, and physiological pathways, our relationships have significant impacts on the health of our minds and bodies. Let’s dig a bit into the research.

Relationships and Mental Health

The strength of our social networks has a profound influence on mental health, in fact this may be the most robustly validated finding of social relationship research. A systematic review of 63 clinical trials found that the strength of social bonds was the most direct factor associated with mental health outcomes (3). A large-scale longitudinal study involving over 22,000 participants, conducted in Australia and New Zealand, investigating the factors that influence mental health, found that social connectedness was the strongest and most consistent predictor of overall mental well-being (4). Two other large studies found that poor relationship quality (with significant others and family) and perceived level of strain within close relationships were two of the strongest risk factors for the development of clinical depression (5, 6). Furthermore, the connection between social relationships and mental health appears to be a progressive cycle as development in depressive symptoms has been linked to decreased time spent interacting socially (7). Essentially, the weaker our social networks the greater our risk for mental health disorders, and as mental health progresses downward, we spend less and less time and effort on those important relationships.

But when it comes to relationships and mental health, it isn’t all bad news. Many of these factors are under your control. What the research has made clear is that investing time and effort in these relationships pays dividends for your own mental health. Being proactive about initiating contact with those in your social circle, especially if it is helping them regulate their emotions, strengthens your own emotional resolve and decreases depression risk (8). A recently published meta-analysis found that the

more prosocial behavior one exhibits, the more emotionally resilient they become, and that performing random acts of kindness may be the single best thing we can do for our mental well-being (9).

Relationships and Physical Health

As the saying goes, “you are the sum of the five people closest to you.” That expression is never more true than when discussing physical health. Research has made it exceedingly clear that individuals in your social circle exhibit vast influence over your lifestyle habits and even your weight, and the bigger (and tighter) that circle, the better. There is substantial scientific evidence to suggest that your family and peers are the greatest predictor of health behavior (10). Analysis from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the higher someone scored on a social support survey, the higher the likely quality of their diet (ie. fruit and vegetable intake, consumption of processed foods) (11). Having trouble getting out the door to exercise? Get a friend involved. A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that an exercise partner is the most effective way to stick to your exercise routine, and the more emotionally supportive that partner is, the more you will likely exercise (12). You are even more likely to be successful in losing weight and keeping it off long-term if you have strong connections to family and friends (13). While the physiological factors are still being investigated, it’s clear that surrounding yourself with people often promotes the healthy lifestyle habits that result in better health outcomes. If you invest in strong relationships, as analysis of one of the longest and largest investigations into chronic disease has shown, you will likely have better heart health, an easier time managing weight, and a longer lifespan (14).

Socializing Your Way to Better Health

Diet and exercise are important, but you can’t forget the importance of a large social network – filled with quality relationships – in your healthy lifestyle. Time and effort devoted to the people around you will pay off by improving your own mental and physical health. It’s as simple as four easy steps:

1

Initiate contact with friends and family, especially if you know they could use some emotional support.

2

Make random acts of kindness a part of your lifestyle.

3

Include friends in your exercise routine.

4

Surround yourself with individuals who share your healthy lifestyle goals.

A healthy lifestyle is not just about what you eat and how much you exercise, but who you surround yourself with. The more effort you put into your relationships, the more likely you are to reach your health goals. With their integrative approach, the clinicians at Prime Meridian Healthcare are here to help you develop the tools to strengthen your relationships so you can live a longer, healthier, and happier life.

References

1

Social Relationships and Health

Umberson D. and Karas Montez J.

4

Social Connectedness and Mental Health

Saeri A., et al.

7

Social Isolation and Depression Correlation

Elmer T. and Stadtfeld C.

10

Social Relationships and Health Behavior

Umberson D., et al.

13

Social Support and Weight Loss Maintenance

Karfoupoulou E., et al.

2

Social Networks and Health

Smith K. and Christakis N.

5

Social Relationships and Depression

Teo R., et al.

8

Helping Others Regulate Emotion Lowers Depression

Dore B., et al.

11

Social Support and Diet Quality

Pieroth R., et al.

14

Social Integration and Reduced Risk of Coronary Heart Disease

Chang S., et al.

3

Social Relationships, Mental Health, and Well-Being

Tough H., et al.

6

Social Relationships and Depressive Symptoms

Barger S., et al.

9

Reward of Kindness

Hui B., et al.

12

Received Social Support and Exercising

Rackow P., et al.