'I'll be there for you': Study finds friends as important as exercise for your overall health

Research has found that older adults with a rich social life are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections.

We all have times in our lives when we gravitate more towards our pals; during a shared pregnancy, starting a new school, at the rebellious teenage stage, inevitable breakups, when someone gets sick, the big birthday celebration years, college life...

I feel lucky that I've gone through all of theses things with the same group of girls. Female friendships get a bad rap sometimes, solidarity among women is often portrayed as strong but catty, with undercurrents of jealousy or game-playing. And while there will always be part of us that enjoys a good drama amongst our tribe, my experience with my friends has been a long, long road with a great deal of support when I needed it most.

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Therefore, according to a new study, my friendships should be a boost to my overall health. Research published in the journal PLUS ONE found that the strength of our social circle can have an impact on our stress, happiness and well-being levels.



Of course, part of this is common sense; feeling supported, popular and well-liked is strongly associate with better mental and physical health. The happier we are, the healthier we are, right?

These findings, from the research at the University of Notre Dame, showed that this social support is actually a better predictor of our health than the information from fitness tracker data on physical activity, heart rate and sleep.

The bigger picture, in other words, when it comes to our well-being must include the "quantified-self" - that takes into consideration our view of ourselves, self-esteem, how we reflect ourselves back to the world. Our friends (and family to a certain degree) play a large part in holding that mirror up to us.


"One study even suggested that the detrimental effects of being without friends was like smoking about half a packet of cigarettes a day".

The bigger your social life, according to this body of research, the more your mood is improved, stress levels are lowered, more positive health behaviours are encouraged. It can even boost your heart health. A social component can actually improve the impact of already healthy habits such as exercise.

Belly-laughs essential

We know too that the opposite is true, social isolation is linked to higher rates of depression. Loneliness can trigger cellular-level changes that could even suppress immunity. One study even suggested that the detrimental effects of being without friends was like smoking about half a packet of cigarettes a day.

But anyone with a pal can attest to the power of a good belly-laugh or talking through a problem. We call this food for the soul. And finding your tribe doesn't have to mean that you retain the longest friendships (although it is nice to be reminded of how much you've been through together) But making new friends, work friends, couple friends - it doesn't matter how, as long as you feel valued, cherished and respected within the kinship you surround yourself with.

"But there are times when it isn't just alright, but actually very helpful for our success and self-identity to let some friendships fade away".

Amanda Cook is a clinical neuropsychologist at Northwestern University. She carried out a research project on memory function which studied those over 80 years old. Her team discovered that those with the best memories had more positive social relationships. "Our findings add to this prior work by suggesting that perceived high-quality social relationships may be an important factor in above-average cognitive performance," she says.


Pal power

So, friends are also food for your brain.

Equally, trimming the fat of those you choose to have in your life is important to your well-being. There is no point in remaining in a relationship that makes you unhappy. If a particular friendship doesn't reflect your values, it is alright to say goodbye.

We are sometimes scared to release a friendship, especially if you cherish the nostalgia. But there are times when it isn't just alright, but actually very helpful for our success, self-identity and therefore our health, to let some friendships fade away.

Image via NBC

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