There’s no substitute for a good friend. And while crazy schedules can make it tough to get together, new research suggests that finding the time to nurture these relationships can be important to your well-being.
“I’m a firm believer in the health benefits of friendship,” says Dr. Art Hister, a family physician in Vancouver and the author of Dr. Art Hister’s Guide to Living a Long & Healthy Life. “The more friendships you have, the happier you are, and that has all sorts of physical benefits.” So reach out to a friend today: You’ll both reap these five health rewards.
1. Your stress level drops
Whether it’s coffee at your kitchen table or a visit to an art gallery, carving out time for friends pays off. While we all know that loneliness can make us unhappy, research suggests it can be a killer as well. In 2006, researchers at the University of Chicago analyzed data from several studies that showed lonely people reacted more intensely to the curveballs life threw their way. For some people, that led to elevated levels of epinephrine, part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” system. Consistent spikes in stress hormones can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke.
2. You may lose weight
Eating good-for-you foods when you get together with friends can be contagious, so lead the way. American researchers who analyzed the social ties of more than 12,000 people who participated in a major heart study found clusters of thin people and obese people, which suggests that friends have a strong influence on weight. That’s something Diane Finegood, scientific director of the Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes in Burnaby, B.C., part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, has seen first-hand. “If I’m at a buffet, I’ll take a dessert plate, which is smaller than a dinner plate, and use that for my meal,” she says. “People I’m eating with see that, and it’s an opening for talking about choices, and it gets others on board.”
3. You may live longer
Know someone who’s battling a health problem or the blues? They may find it tough to reach out, so show them you care by connecting with them regularly. According to researchers in the U.S. who looked at 503 women with symptoms of coronary artery disease, the women who had few personal contacts in their day-to-day life were twice as likely to die over the next two to four years as were those who had a more robust roster of friends. And the more the merrier: If you have a few friends in common, get them on board, too. You’ll all feel better about staying in touch and it could make a huge difference to a friend in need.
4. You’ll stay active
We all know that exercise can help us feel great, but new research suggests that it may make you happier with your friendships as well. Researchers at the University of Alberta found that children who are good at sports also tend to be more satisfied with the number and types of friends they have. Lead researcher Janice Causgrove Dunn says this can also apply to adults. Even if you haven’t been active in years, bolster your friendships by exercising together. “It doesn’t have to be a skilled activity like volleyball or soccer,” says Causgrove Dunn. “It can be as simple as a morning walk together. Getting out with a friend can keep you motivated, and it’s more fun because you have someone to talk with.”
5. Your love life may improve
Friendships give you the opportunity to hone your relationship skills in all sorts of ways, which can help pave the way for stronger intimate relationships. Studies have shown that individuals who lack these close relationships are more prone to depression and drug and alcohol abuse. Last year, researchers in California confirmed previous studies that highlighted the benefit of healthy friendships as a foundation for forming the skills needed to foster meaningful intimate relationships. So ask your friends to help you work on issues that may be challenging your love life, such as your chronic lateness.