A new study out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that our personal relationships are as important to our physical health as diet and exercise — both the quantity and the quality of them at different stages of our lives. For the introverts among us, this might mean that making sure you're getting in quality social time is as important as making sure you get in some leafy greens every once in awhile, and for the extroverts, it might mean less guilt about blowing off steam after work with friends instead of doing something "productive."
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, surveyed more than 14,000 participants at various life stages, and assessed their social integration using metrics like numbers of friends, whether or not they were married, whether they were religiously affiliated, and their "involvement in community domains." Then, the quality of their relationships was assessed, eg., whether they found their friends and relatives to be critical, supportive, loving, argumentative, or annoying.
Finally, researchers assessed the participants' overall health by looking at their levels of C-reactive protein (a protein that measures inflammation), systolic and diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass index.
Said senior author on the study Kathleen Mullan Harris to the Washington Post:
"These markers, all together, are good markers of some of the physiological effects of stress — daily stress, not acute stress...The theory is the social relationships can buffer some of the effects of stress, and/or help with coping."
And the theory was proven correct. Adolescents with a low number of social ties were found to have the same risk of inflammation as those who didn't exercise. The older adults surveyed had a higher risk of developing hypertension from a low number of social ties than from diabetes. And poor quality social ties, ie., strenuous relationships, increased waist circumference and inflammation among those in early- to mid-adulthood.
The other interesting finding from the study involved during which life stages quality relationships were important versus quantity of relationships. In both adolescence and old age, having a large quantity of social ties was better for participants' health. But for participants in their mid-30s to 50s, the quality of relationships was better for their health. In other words, for middle-aged adults, having strained relationships is more detrimental than having fewer, quality relationships.
Harris hypothesized that this was because middle-aged adults are maintaining relationships with their young children as well as with their older parents, meaning they have a big social network by default.
"What mattered more is what those ties mean in your life," she said. "Do they provide support or strain? That's what tends to matter for health."
So whether it's forcing yourself to do two new social activities a month, letting yourself skip cleaning your apartment in lieu of brunch with your friends, or f*cking finally cutting ties with toxic family members, go hang out with people who make you feel good! I'm not a scientist, but what I'm deducing here is that it's basically as good for you as a spin class and a kale salad.
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