In the 1968 film, Funny Girl, Barbara Streisand made popular the song, “People.” The opening lyrics are timeless and as appropriate now as when originally recorded. “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” As we take a deeper dive into the importance of lifestyle medicine, we learn that strong socialization is the foundation for happiness, health and longevity.
Lifestyle Medicine is the use of evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic intervention—including a whole-food, plant-predominant eating pattern, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, and positive social connection—as a primary modality, to prevent, treat, and often reverse chronic disease.
According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), having a strong social connection is the single most important predictor of human happiness and a long life. As one of the ACLM’s six foundational pillars, it is believed that, “People need people who will care about them as individuals…count on them when they are faced with challenges and provide emotional support as needed.” Can you recall prior to the Covid-19 shutdown when you gathered with friends and families? Remember the laughter, stories, jokes and comradery resulting in “belly laughs till you cried alligator tears?” If you are like me, you truly miss those fun-filled get togethers.
On the other hand, how often have you called a friend just to vent? When your frustrations were so intense that you just needed to scream? Your network of trusted friends helped you work through these trying situations. The listening ear of a good friend is sometimes all that is necessary. According to the Mayo Clinic, “A strong social support network can be critical to help you through the stress of tough times, whether you’ve had a bad day at work or a year filled with loss or chronic illness.”
Dan Buettner, the National Geographic’s journalist who discovered the “Blue Zones,” has written books about how lifestyle and social support have added at least seven years to life expectancy in these geographic regions. Blue Zone populations produce the largest number of centenarians–individuals living well past 100 years of age. Not only do these populations live longer, they also enjoy a higher quality-of-life. They continue to be productive, have a sense of purpose, enjoy daily activity, and are socially connected. As a result, they are able to live independently in their own homes, are not dependent on pills or supplements, and have the world’s lowest rates of dementia throughout their twilight years.
Lack of social support can lead to isolation, loneliness, and depression, all of which are associated with an increased risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke according to a 2016 meta-analysis published in the journal, Heart. Specifically, “…poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of CHD and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.” Other studies have shown that social relationships affect mental health, health behavior, physical health and mortality. Strong social support systems can help to maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease depressive symptoms, and mitigate posttraumatic stress disorders.
How do we develop and maintain social connectedness and engagement? How can we develop a sense of purpose and prevent loneliness? Forming social connections and relationships are the key according to ACLM. Some recommendations include:
- Volunteer: Helping others to improve their health and happiness affords you the opportunity to meet others and increase your self-confidence
- Connect with a community resource center to find local options
- Find online or community groups who share your interests. https://www.meetup.com/ or Facebook groups are great places to start
- Join a religious or spiritual group
- Help at a local animal shelter or adopt a pet to connect with other animal lovers
- Go to local sporting events, music performances, lectures or art displays
- Help organize community events by joining a steering committee or board
- Attend community celebrations like parades or walks
- Take a course at your local library or community college
- Ask your employer for ways to increase social connections at work
Look for social opportunities to improve other areas of your health such as participating in activity groups (running or biking clubs or community gardening), joining a gym for group fitness and “boot camps,” or enrolling in healthy cooking classes (see upcoming classes below or visit https://phyto-fit.life/events).
There are many ways to develop and strengthen our social relationships that will fundamentally and positively impact our health, happiness and longevity. Connecting in person has become easier with less-restrictive Covid regulations, online opportunities such as Zoom, and even social media magnets such as Facebook or Instagram. I would love to stay connected and be a part of your social support system; please follow me on https://www.facebook.com/phytofitllc or https://www.instagram.com/phytofitllc/.