Healthy Habit #9: Family and Friends

When we think about our health, we normally focus on how we, ourselves, are impacting our quality of health.  Not surprisingly, however, studies have shown that family and friends have a major impact on both our physical and emotional health and have a stronger influence than many of us realize on our thoughts and behaviors. 

The Edelman Health Barometer 2011 global survey consisted of online and face-to-face interviews, focusing on what drives health-related behavior.  It found that social relationships significantly influence our health status.  Additionally, the lack of ongoing support from friends, family or other resources contributed to an inability to make healthy changes stick.

Specific findings regarding how we perceive ourselves in relation to those around us as explained by Rich Nauert, PhD., are as follows:

43 percent of respondents believe that, after themselves, their friends and family have the most impact on their lifestyle as it relates to health, and 36 percent believe friends and family have the most impact on personal nutrition.

31 percent – predominantly those with healthier behaviors – tend to distance themselves from friends who engage in unhealthy behaviors.

44 percent of people do not let health status or health behavior influence their social interactions, thus indicating that less healthy behavior is the norm with participants consuming less health information and often failing to sustain healthy behavior change when they try.

The Health Benefits of Family and Friends

You can profit health-wise from caring family members and friends in terms of their support in helping you manage stressful issues and minimize negative emotions such as sadness or loneliness, as well as encouraging you to improve poor lifestyle habits.

In her January, 2016 article, Stephanie Pappas, Live Science Contributor, lists 7 ways friendships (and we can include family relationships in this list) are good for your health. 

1. Friends may extend your life

People who have strong social relationships are less likely to die prematurely than people who are isolated.  In fact, according to a 2010 review of research, the effect of social ties on life span is twice as strong as that of exercising and equivalent to that of quitting smoking.

2. Your social network makes you generally healthier

"One's social life matters above and beyond what we already know about the ‘quick fixes’ of diet and exercise on health,” said Yang Claire Yang, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who studies the physiological effects of social ties.

Yang and her colleagues studied this health effect by comparing the biological statistics of people who reported being isolated with those who reported having lots of friends across their life span. Using four large studies of hundreds to thousands of people each, ages 12 to 91, the researchers compared biomarkers such as blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and levels of the inflammation marker C-reactive protein.

They found that these measures of health were worse in people who also had weaker social ties.  For example, among the people in the study who were in old age, a lack of social connections more than doubled the risk of high blood pressure (raising it by 124 percent). For comparison, having diabetes raised the risk of high blood pressure by much less (70 percent).

3. Friendships might help keep your mind sharp

Having friends who make you feel like you belong may be a key for better mental health.  A 2012 study found that older people's dementia risk increased with their feelings of loneliness.

4. Friends influence us (for better or worse)

The Framingham Heart Study followed people over time, allowing researchers to draw causal inferences.  If one person became obese over the course of the study, they found that friends of that person were 57 percent more likely to become obese too.

But the converse was also true, study researcher James Fowler, a professor of global public health at the University of California, San Diego, noted.  People also take cues from their friends who exercise or eat well to lose weight, as a separate 2011 study confirmed.

5. Your social network can help you through difficult issues

A major study published in the journal The Lancet in 1989 found that women with breast cancer who were randomly assigned to attend support groups with other cancer patients reported better quality of life and lived longer, compared with women in a control group who were not assigned to such support groups.

6. Friends can help you cope with rejection

A 2011 study on fourth-graders found that having friends helped kids cope with the stress of being picked on or rejected by other classmates.

7. Friendships can last a lifetime

Distance doesn't have to dampen a friendship.  In one study, researchers followed college friends beginning in 1983, asking them about their friendship and sense of closeness.  They found that physical distance didn't necessarily track with the emotional closeness of a friendship over decades.

The Influence of Family and Friends

According to psychology teacher Jenna Breuer, family members tend to have a strong nurturing influence because they are the first socializing agents to whom children are exposed. Likewise, because people tend to gravitate towards others that share commonalities with them—whether they are interests, cultural identity or social groups—they are more open to the influence of their peers.

Our family is, basically, a permanent fixture in our life – no exchanges allowed.   So, if you’re fortunate enough to have caring family members, you have a head-start on cashing in on a mutually valuable association of health benefits. 

While cultivating good friendships affords you the opportunity to actually choose those who you’d like to socialize with, friendship isn’t always easy to develop or maintain.  It takes effort, understanding and persistence. 

Concerning both family and friends, we each have a responsibility to give of ourselves and be a loyal family member or friend.  Giving of ourselves and valuing what our friends and family give to us not only improve our health but enrich our lives. 

The 12 Habits of Highly Healthy People

The 12 Habits of Highly Healthy People

This group is an adjunct to our "12 Habits" program for MyAHE members. Although this group is open to all, only MyAHE members are eligible to utilize our 24alife personalized health app.

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