Could there be something more important than diet and exercise?

Think about it: you’ve had a bad day (or a bad year, more like!). What would you prefer to do, eat a salad or meet up with your BFF and have a heart to heart? Turns out that having strong social ties can have as much of an impact on your health as exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet middle school English textbook. In fact, one study found that the effect of social ties on life span is twice as strong as that of exercising and equivalent to that of quitting smoking. Of course, that’s not to say you should ditch your exercise to catch up with your bestie, but does serve as an important reminder of the strength of your social relationships has on your overall health.

How friendships help your health

Because we’re all different, we all have different reasons for benefiting from a close circle of friends. However, there is one thing that is common amongst everyone: the positive effect that friendship has on stress.

While it’s true that a little stress can be good (when a deadline is fast approaching for example), ongoing stress is not. Chronic, or ongoing stress has been closely linked to:

  • Anxiety, depression and memory and concentration problems
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease, stroke and diabetes
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain

Feeling lonely and isolated turns on your stress response, and keeps it on for long periods of time. But when you throw a good friend into the mix, that stress response is toned down. That’s because friends help you get through the bad stuff, they increase your sense of belonging and purpose plus boost your self-confidence and self-worth. Put all these benefits together, and BOOM, a healthier you.

The positives of peer pressure

Peer pressure gets a bad rap but it has a lot of positives too. We often take cues from our friends about what to eat and whether to exercise. A positive story about a new exercise class or hike, for example, might encourage you to want to try it out too. Close social relationships provide real meaning to our lives, and in this way, encourage us to take better care of ourselves.

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Friendships to cultivate and those to avoid

In the age of being connected 24/7 it can be easy to slip into the “comfort” of having hundreds of Facebook “friends”. But how many of these are true friends? One study found that out of 150 “friends” on Facebook, only around 4 of these were dependable. Sound familiar? Online friends can’t give you a hug, and a “LOL, smiley face” sometimes just doesn’t cut it when you’re sharing good news!

True friendships take time to form and more time to deepen, but when it comes to building meaningful relationships, this time means nothing. When a relationship starts taking up more time and energy than you have to give, perhaps it’s time to review!

Tips on how to expand your social network (with real friends!)

  • Focus on the way friendships feel, not how good they might look on paper.
  • Be yourself. When you take part in activities that you enjoy, you have a good chance of meeting people with similar interests.
  • Smile more! People who smile are perceived as more attractive, kinder, and happier, and therefore more approachable.
  • Be open to forming new relationships outside of your usual “comfort zone”.
  • Schedule ‘em in. It sounds silly, but life gets busy! Scheduling in meetings with friends makes it almost guaranteed you’ll get to see them instead of just talking about it!
  • Try to see the world from someone else’s perspective!

Research suggests we value experiences over material items, and what better experience is there than spending time with a group of best friends? The truth is you don’t need to be everyone’s friend. A toxic friendship is exactly as its name implies and won’t be doing you or your health any favours! Choose to be friends with people who build you up, not tear you down. Choose friends who inspire you and welcome you, not alienate and insult you. Remember, you can’t choose your family, you CAN choose your friends!