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One secret to good health? Your social life!

Created date

December 21st, 2010

Being socially active is not just about fun and games. It may make you healthier. Studies show that being socially active, especially giving support to others, might actually help you live longer, says Mark Samuelson, M.D. Other research shows that people with good social support networks have a lower risk of becoming physically ill, a lower risk of depression and cognitive impairment, and a lower risk of early death. One government survey showed that Americans age 65-plus spend up to half of their leisure time watching TV. Being alone and sedentary is not good for your physical or mental health.

Gets you moving

Being socially active often translates into more physical activity, which benefits all aspects of your health, Samuelson says. Your friends tend to share in the same types of activities, like taking walks or swimming, says Forrest Hong, Ph.D., LCSW, chair of the National Association of Social Workers Aging Specialty Practice Section Committees. And a physical activity is more enjoyable when you have someone to share it with.

Keeps you sharp

In many cases, maintaining our friendships socially helps to enhance our mental well-being, Hong says. If you are socially active, you are engaging in the types of interactive activities that keep your brain working efficiently, like lively conversations about favorite topics, playing games, or dancing. Participating in social activities helps stimulate your brain to release feel good chemicals, like norepinephrine, which leads to feelings of happiness and contentment. Being socially active does not necessarily mean having something different on your calendar every day. Interaction is the most important component. Going to church once a week or having dinner with your family are both good activities. It doesn t have to be a formal, hours-long engagement either. A social contact can consist of having a brief telephone conversation with a friend or stopping over to someone s house to see if they need anything. It s easy to stick to familiar activities, but try something new once in awhile. Research supports brain and body benefits of some activities in particular, like acting, painting, playing musical instruments, photography, dancing, and doing volunteer work.

A safety net

To lower your risk of becoming socially isolated in the event of a health condition or other major life change, nurture the relationships you already have. It s very helpful to have social support and friends in times of illness or loss, Samuelson says. Friends can help you cope with the aging process, Hong adds. If there s a health reason why you feel you can t get out more, talk to your doctor. Or have people over to your home for an activity or a meal. Friends understand your likes and dislikes, Hong says. They know what makes you laugh and what doesn t. They understand and accept your differences in politics and opinions. In other words, there is a sense of acceptance that is missing when you don t have friends to share your life experiences.