How Friendship Is As Beneficial As Exercise

by Lily Feinn

Is your email stuffed full of party invites, and are you constantly running to meet up for drinks with all your besties? Social butterflies out there rejoice, because new study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has finally proved the health benefits of having friends. According to the study, the larger a person’s social network at a young age, the healthier they are early and later in life. While 20 years of data suggested a positive link between social relationships and health and longevity, this study is the first to definitively examine and connect the two. Talk about friends with benefits — health benefits, that is.

Researchers built their study on the foundation of four nationally representative surveys of the US population that together tracked the lifespan from adolescence to the advanced years. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , examined the association between elements of social relationships “social integration, social support, and social strain” and markers of physical well-being in each stage of life. They measured C-reactive protein which is a gauge of systemic inflammation, blood pressure, waist circumference, and BMI — all of which are important factors in determining mortality risk, and can lead to heart disease, stroke, and cancer. "We studied the interplay between social relationships, behavioral factors and physiological dysregulation that, over time, lead to chronic diseases of aging — cancer being a prominent example," Yang Claire Yang, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, and co-author of the study. Results showed that the larger a person's social network in early and late life, the lower the risk of physical impairment — and conversely, those more isolated were “associated with vastly elevated risk in specific life stages.”

Does this mean you should be concerned if your calendar isn’t packed to the gills with flitting from hangout to hangout? Thankfully, if you are in your 20s and 30s, you don't need to have tons of friends to get the health benefits. The study found that what counts is friendship quality over quantity in middle adulthood. It is more important what the relationships provides, than sheer numbers of social connections. So if your number of Facebook friends is in the low hundreds — that's totally fine!

However, in adolescents, researchers found that individuals who were social isolated were at the same risk of inflammation as being physically inactive. And that is a serious issue, as physical inactivity is the fourth leading factor for mortality, according to the World Health Organization. Those who were more socially integrated had lower risks of obesity. Among the elderly, social reclusiveness was more harmful than even diabetes on developing high blood pressure.

Kathleen Mullan Harris, professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-author of the study, stressed the importance of integrating the study's results, "Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active."

Perhaps this study could even encourage kids to step away from the computer and go chill with their friends!

Images: Pixabay, Giphy