WELLNESS
01/06/2016 04:30 pm ET

Friends Are As Important To Your Health As Diet And Exercise

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Sam Edwards via Getty Images

New year, new you, right? But while you’re shopping for healthy foods at the grocery store and booking that spin class, don’t forget to make a little time to see your friends.

Research has long shown that friendships can make a positive difference in the health of senior citizens, but a new study shows that relationships can have a similar impact on the health of people at every life stage. And that's especially true for teens and young adults. 

The new study, from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests that people with good, supportive relationships are also healthier: They tend to have lower blood pressure, a smaller waist circumference and body mass index, and lower levels of inflammation than those without these positive social ties.

The effect of relationships on health is so powerful that in young people, social isolation had a negative impact comparable to a lack of exercise.

"We’re able to show for the first time how this link [between social relationships and health] happens, evolves and changes as individuals age,” said sociology professor Yang Claire Yang of UNC Chapel Hill and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. 

"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,” said senior study author Kathleen Mullan Harris, who is also a sociology professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

Harris and her team used data from four large, long-term and nationally representative studies, encompassing a total of about 15,000 participants. They identified associations between the number or quality of relationships and certain health markers, like BMI, waist circumference and inflammation risk.

Teens And Senior Citizens Suffer Most From Social Isolation

The study found social isolation was especially harmful in young people aged 12 to 18 and senior citizens. In the teens, social isolation was linked to the same levels of increased inflammation as physical inactivity, and in seniors, social isolation proved even more harmful than diabetes when it came to hypertension levels.

 

As teens transition into young adulthood, social networks continue to impact health. Researchers found that the more socially integrated a teen was, the healthier their metabolic and cardiovascular systems were as they grew into young adults (mid-20s to early 30s). Secondly, the size of a network -- how many relationships a person has -- had the most significant impact on health among young adults and senior citizens (late 50s onward).

Social isolation had a negative effect on health that was comparable to lack of exercise and even some diseases.

In Middle Age, It's Quality, Not Quantity That Counts

In contrast, the size of the social network didn’t have an effect on health among people in middle adulthood (between mid-30s and mid-50s). Most middle-aged adults are interacting with the highest number of people they ever will at any stage of their lives, and ties to people at work, aging parents, young children and others in the community may also be significant sources of stress. Instead of the quantity of relationships, researchers theorized that the quality of a network had the biggest effect on health during mid-adulthood.

"It’s about whether or not the contacts they have with people provide them with social support or significant strain," explained Harris.

The study didn’t establish definitive causal relationships between social ties and health. However, both Yang and Harris are confident that the moral of their study is that making friends and maintaining strong social networks should be a lifelong goal, as well as a public health recommendation.

In other words, if you really want to get healthy, when you’re done eating that kale and brown rice bowl, text a friend and ask them what they’re doing this weekend.

The study was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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