We all know the typical steps we need to take in order to be healthy: eat well (balanced meals, lots of protein and veggies, minimal processed food), exercise regularly (a mix of cardio and strength training), rest often (get enough sleep!) and drink lots (and lots) of water. The checklist of things to do as a part of a healthy lifestyle has been practiced and promoted by wellness pros and average Joes for decades. But more than ever before there’s an increasing focus on another part of our health — our mental and emotional health. People are starting to think about how they feel on a deeper level rather than just their nutritional intake or their physical state of fitness; they’re paying a lot more attention to what makes them happy and healthy emotionally. And a growing body of research is suggesting that one of the best things you can do for your emotional health is spending time with friends.
Social interactions and time with friends aren’t just a fun way to pass the time or a necessary part of your busy daily life. Maintaining relationships with friends can actually boost your mental and emotional health, which in turn impacts your overall state of wellness and longevity. And this is especially true for women. Because as any woman knows, when times get tough, we really need our girls, and as women navigating relationships or careers or motherhood or all of the above, life can get tough often. If you were looking for an excuse to plan your next girls’ trip or ladies night with your homegirls, this is it.
A New Way to Look at Health
We all want to be healthy, and more than that, we all set goals of being healthier than we were before. There’s a reason that various forms of getting healthy were the top three most common New Year’s resolutions in 2019 according to an Inc. survey of 2,000 respondents. Top of the list was “diet or eat healthier” with 71 percent of participants; second place was “exercise more” with 65 percent and “lose weight” with 54 percent was in third. And this year was no exception, but rather the norm. For as long as people have set goals, they have resolved to be healthier. This applies to specific days dedicated to goal-setting (like New Year’s Eve, a birthday etc.) as well as just general personal growth plans throughout the year. Self-improvement sells. People are always trying to be better, look better, feel better and live longer.
But typically those goals involve a fairly short list of actions and specific steps to success. They want to eat less, or eat healthier. They want to lose pounds. They want to spend more time getting in shape, all of which tie back to the idea of what it means to be healthy. Rarely does the list include anything about hanging out with friends, but recent research is suggesting that it should be a part of your overall health-improvement plan.
We’re learning more about what it actually means to be healthy. Not just to look good or to be fit, but to be truly healthy. People are more openly talking about and thinking about how our mental and emotional health play into the larger picture of wellness, and that goes for both medical experts and average people just trying to be their best.
Think of it this way: while the science behind your physical health is legit, and it addresses all of the things we need to do to maintain a healthy physical body, there is more to us than just that quantitative information. As Time reports, according to Nitesh Chawla, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame, and co-author of a study recently published in the PLOS ONE journal, “there’s also a qualified self, which is who I am, what are my activities, my social network, and all of these aspects that are not reflected in any of these measurements.” “My lifestyle, my enjoyment, my social network—all of those are strong determinants of my well-being,” she said.
Our social health is a major indicator for how healthy we feel in all aspects of our lives, and time with friends is arguably the most important part of our social relationships. If you need more proof that you’re long overdue for some serious homegirl hangout time, then let’s turn to the experts.
The Health Benefits of Social Interaction
There are several important benefits of social interaction of all kinds, from casual hangouts with friends to more intense support from family and everything in between.
Of course, there are the obvious benefits that you think about when you picture your last night out with the girls. If you’re anything like us, then no one can make you laugh like your friends. From inappropriate girl-talk to reminiscing about the past to giggling about your kids or whatever nonsense happened in the latest episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, spending time with friends is a guaranteed chance to exercise your abs with those deep belly laughs that can cure even the most stressful day. But the benefits of friendship and social interaction go deeper than that.
According to Angela K. Troyer Ph.D. in Psychology Today, “connecting with friends may also boost your brain health and lower your risk of dementia.” It can also help you live longer, improve mental health and reduce your risk of depression. And as an added bonus, social interactions and spending time with friends can also boost your physical health by strengthening your immune system. Clearly the health of our social lives is much more intertwined with our physical well being than anyone realized in the past, and it is a crucial piece of the puzzle in terms of our traditional definition of health.
While this is news to many of us, research on the benefits of social relationships has been going on for decades. For years studies have shown that social support from friends and loved ones (family members, a spouse or partner, even your kids and coworkers) is associated with improved mental, emotional and physical health. And similarly, a life of isolation or limited social contact has several detrimental effects on one’s health.
A 1965 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that of the nearly 7,000 people studied, those people “who lacked social and community ties were more likely to die in the follow-up period than those with more extensive contacts.”
A 2001 Duke study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that
“patients with small social networks had an elevated risk of mortality” including among patients with serious medical conditions such as coronary artery disease. The indications of these findings are that there is a link between socialization, social support and survival.
According to the National Institute on Aging, there is a “strong correlation between social interaction and health and well-being among older adults and have suggested that social isolation may have significant adverse effects for older adults.” And Harvard Women’s Health Watch reported that “social connections like these not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking. Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.”
Why Women Need Time With Their Girlfriends
It’s important for everyone, of all ages and genders and life situations to spend time with friends. But for women in particular, having a strong support system and social network is crucial. It’s no secret that being a woman is hard. Between our children, our jobs, our responsibilities to our home, our relatives, our spouses… it can seem like an impossible task to do it all. And while adding one more task to your constantly growing list of things to do seems like a terrible idea, when it comes to spending time with friends, it’s essential.
Your friends can keep you grounded. They can remind you that you’re not alone. They will listen to you vent. They will hug you when you need a hug. They’ll make you laugh like no one else can. They’ll tell you when you’re being a psychopath or an overly sensitive drama queen. They’ll put it in perspective. They’ll offer to pick up your kids when you need a moment of silence. They’ll guide you with tips and tricks to help you survive any bad breakup or bad day at work or family argument or moment of self-doubt. Your girls are there for you. And if you want to be the best (and healthiest) version of yourself, you need to be there for them too. And that means literally being with them, spending face time together to establish the support system that will help you all get through tough times and good times.
Social Media Might Seem “Social” But It’s Not The Same As Physical Interaction
We know what you’re wondering: it’s 2019, I rarely have time for extended phone conversations or face-to-face catch-ups… I speak exclusively through Instagram or TikTok. Isn’t connecting on social media close enough to a social interaction? Put simply: HELL. NO.
There is no replacement for legitimate face-to-face interactions and good old-fashioned quality time spent together. In fact, social media actually has an opposite effect to actual face time with a friend or loved one. Studies show that social media and all of the filters and fake photos and unrealistic portrayals of what real life is like can cause intense isolation as opposed to socialization. A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found that meaningful daily interactions had the strongest associations with lower loneliness, improved family life, better balance, and improved physical and mental health. On the flip side, social anxiety was strongly associated with self-reported social media overuse and daily use of text-based social media. Social media use (and overuse) is linked with social isolation and loneliness, both of which can lead to poor physical health including suppressed immune systems, chronic inflammation, poor health choices (such as smoking cigarettes or lack of exercise) and the development of mental health conditions. We’re not saying that all social media is bad all the time, but in no way can it replace the meaningful interactions and in-person relationships we rely on to feel connected.
In short, human beings need more than just text messages and social media “likes” to connect and feel healthy on an emotional and physical level. They need time with their friends.
Choose Your Friends Wisely, Your Health Depends On It
Another important thing to note is that the basic act of interaction isn’t a guarantee of good health. Who you interact with has a major influence on how beneficial that relationship will be. In other words, your mother was right — who you spend your time with matters, so choose your friends wisely. You do not want to get mixed up in a group of friends who are self-destructive or who aren’t supportive and encouraging of healthy habits. On the contrary, a group of loving, caring, there-for-you-no-matter-what friends with similar life goals and values can work wonders in improving your health.
A 2010 study published in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that “social interactions can enhance good health through a positive influence on people’s living habits.” Meaning that if your circle of friends practice good habits then you will be most likely to practice those same healthy habits. So if your friends refuse to exercise or eat nutritious foods, then you’ll probably observe those same lazy and unhealthy habits. And if your friends don’t smoke, you’ll be less likely to smoke.
If you’ve been missing your girlfriends (or guy friends, or family members) now would be a good time to call them and catch up. Make plans for a reunion. Gather to hang out. Meet for a workout, go out for dinner or our personal favorite, get together for drinks. Volunteer together. Join a club or audit a class. Go on a hike or a walk. Go shopping. Have a movie night. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you do it face to face and reconnect with the people you care about. Remember, you’re not just here for a good time, you’re here for a long time, and that time will be spent living a healthier, longer life if you prioritize your relationships.