Friends – they’re good for your health and waistline

Anyone with close friends knows the powerful impact they have on life. Those without close friends know the powerful impact of being alone.

Without friends, there’s something missing in life. Who can you call for advice? Who can watch your kids while you run a quick errand? How can you enjoy a fun night out on the town? With the increasing popularity of social media, you may have hundreds of ‘friends’ or ‘followers’, but are they what you would call real friends? They may help you feel better about yourself and you may enjoy their pictures and comments, but is there any companionship? Would those ‘friends’ be there for you through thick and thin? Bona fide friendships, it seems, may be more important than you think.

How important? Many studies have been done on the health effects of loneliness. Depression, alcoholism, obesity, and hypertension are just a few effects of a friendless life. Take a few minutes to further consider why friendships are good for your health.

Studies have found interesting connections between strong social support systems and a longer life. What could the reasons be for such a connection? Those with friends drink less and smoke less. They are less depressed and have higher self-esteem.

Studies show that close friends and support groups have the ability to slow the progression of certain cancers, help you live longer following a heart attack, and lessen pain. Friends are there for you during the good times and bad. They provide emotional support, physical help, encouragement, and motivation to get well.

Unmanaged stress leads to an array of health problems. Relationships with friends can provide healthy outlets for stress relief and actually reduce the amount of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body. Having an exercise partner, a movie night friend, and an attentive, listening ear are invaluable tools in the struggle against stress in your life.

(Yes, some friendships can add to the stress in your life at times. But that’s why it’s important to have a network of friends to count on. And when good relationships result in stress, work through it. It’ll pay off in the long run.)

Along with beans and omega-3s, friendships are good for the heart. A lack of friends may increase your risk for heart attack or coronary artery disease, while a close social support system lowers your blood pressure, risk of diabetes, and amount of abdominal fat – all which are risk factors for heart disease.

Why is this so? One of the main reasons is the connection between friendships and stress management. Chronic stress increases your risk for developing heart disease, atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), and high blood pressure.

Social support can also encourage healthy lifestyles that promote heart health. Exercise, healthy eating, not smoking, and drinking alcohol only in moderation are all ways to keep your heart in tip-top shape. With the right friends, these lifestyle choices are easier to make.

Even though you may be exposed to more viruses by spending time with friends, you’re actually less likely to get sick when you have lots of friends. A strong immune system is another benefit of friendships.

Fight germs by fostering close companionship. Always seem to get sick when you’re most stressed? Stress, depression, and social isolation take a toll on the immune system by inhibiting the ability of your immune fighter T-cells to fend off infection and fight tumors. Fight all of these with your best buds.

It’s not the number of friendships you have, but the quality of those friendships that matter most when it comes to health. Developing close friendships may be challenging for your type of personality, you may not think you have time for friends, or you think you’re fine without them, but the effort it takes to create lasting, true friendships is worth it.

Jack Wheeler is a personal trainer and owner of 360 Fitness in Red Deer.

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