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Improve Social Fitness for Heart Health

Published in Behavioral Health Services, Heart & Vascular, For the Health of It Author: Toni Mahowald,PsyD,LP

There are many things we can do to protect our heart health: exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, avoid tobacco and manage stress. Did you know that building our social connectedness also can support heart health?

According to a recent report from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.

While closely related, loneliness and social isolation are not the same. People can feel lonely no matter how much social contact they have whereas social isolation is a lack of social connections. While social isolation can lead to loneliness in some people, others can feel lonely without being socially isolated.

So how can we manage loneliness and social isolation? According to Bob Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, social fitness may be the answer. Dr Waldinger and his colleagues have found that not only do our relationships impact our happiness, but that relationships also are associated with longevity and with protection against stress, depression and declines in memory.

So how can we build our social fitness (and perhaps improve our happiness and heart health at the same time)? Start by identifying the areas of your life in which you would like to be more connected. Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’ve started to drift away from friends or that you are feeling lonely at work. Remember:

  • There is no right number of friends.
  • You don’t need to be an extrovert to improve your social fitness.
  • It’s never too late.

Once you’ve identified how you’d like to build connection try one (or more!) of the following ideas from “The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness:”

  1. Schedule an 8-minute phone call — particularly if you want to catch up with someone but struggle to find a convenient time. Setting a brief time limit allows for connection, while also preventing the awkward “Anyway…” ending to the conversation.
  2. Tell important people in your life how you feel about them — in writing. Share the impact that they have had on your life, and how they have influenced who you are today.
  3. Thank someone special. Gratitude builds closeness in relationships while also building positive emotions — both for the person being thanked and the person doing the thanking!
  4. Put social plans on the calendar — and don’t cancel them! Not only does scheduling allow for the joy of anticipation, it also helps to keep us committed to an action that will likely improve our happiness and strengthen our relationships. As an alternative, if you get an invitation that you might otherwise decline, choose to accept it instead!

Finally, make a commitment to yourself and to your relationships. Repetition is key for benefit — whether you are lifting weights or strengthening your social fitness!