When it comes to health and wellness we tend to think mainly about the big 2, diet and exercise. Even those of us in the healthcare industry can get laser focused on nutrition, looking at all the happenings on a cellular level inside the body, finding supplements, specific foods and vitamins to
recommend to clients in order to help with this ailment or that. But let me tell you, there are sooooo many factors at play, when we are wanting to attain excellent health, and diet and exercise are just one part of it. Yes, nutrition and physical activity are important, but stopping there and not considering other lifestyle factors would be cutting ourselves short. And for those professionals working in the wellness field, we would be doing a great disservice to our clients.
One important factor to consider when it comes to health and longevity is social connection. According to Dan Buettner of The Blue Zones, social connectedness is engrained into the worlds longest living populations, and it provides a sense of belonging and community. A place where one can find support and encouragement. We can eat a whole foods plant-based diet and exercise regularly, but if we don't feel connected to our world and the environment around us, then we are not living our best lives. Humans are social beings, and we need community and a sense of belonging in order to truly thrive. That goes even for those who are not so outgoing and social, for those who prefer a more solitary lifestyle. I say that because I am actually one of these people. I do enjoy being out and about in my community but I also gather strength and focus when I am alone. More often than not I will choose to stay home to do research for my work, or to read a good book, versus going out to a movie or party. But I also know for my own overall health that I cannot close myself off to the world - nor would I want to. Being social and having a feeling of connection is not about how many friends you have or how busy you are. One can have a lot of friends yet feel all alone, and one can have only a few close friends and feel very much loved, supported and connected to the world. It's the quality of these connections and engagements that are important.
Being socially connected and having a sense of belonging is good for our health, both mentally and physically. Mentally, when we are socially connected, we produce hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin - both feel good hormones. When we are alone or isolated, it is believed that these hormone receptors become much more sensitive and primed, almost as if the body is actually looking and searching for connection. When we do socially connect, dopamine and oxytocin, among other hormones, get released. Knowing this brings us back to the notion that we really are social beings - like truly - looking at it on a chemical level.
Physically, when we are socially connected, our parasympathetic nervous system gets activated, which in turn lowers are heart rate and blood pressure and protects us from the negative effects of stress. Studies show a sense of belonging can be protective against many conditions and diseases such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, depression, and even Alzheimer's.(1) One powerful study, a meta-analysis by Holt-Lunstad and colleagues at Brigham Young University, reported that low social interaction was similar to smoking 15 cigarettes per day and to being an alcoholic. It also reported to be more harmful than not exercising, and to be twice as harmful as obesity.(2) This is not to say we should stop exercising or eating healthfully, but more to give you an idea of just how important social connection is.
So from now on, when you think about getting healthy, don't just think about diet and exercise. There are many factors to consider, including the very important aspect of social connection. With this said, my prescription for you is to examine the quantity and quality of your connections. Are you having regular interactions with trusted family or friends that influence you on a positive level? Is there a feeling of closeness and connection? Are these interactions short in duration (5 minutes) or longer (5 hours)? And finally, what type of connections are you having? Are they with family, friends, religious services etc.?
I encourage you to take a closer look at this aspect of your health and consider making changes or adjustments if necessary. Diet and exercise - definitely important. Social connection - imperative for overall health, longevity, and well-being.
NOTE: I would love to hear your answers to some of these questions. Please let me know in the comments section below. And please share this article if you think it might be helpful to someone in your community. Until next time...xx