You know it’s important to go to the gym, eat right and get regular check-ups, but are there any real health benefits of friendship? Yes! Research paints a surprisingly positive picture of how our friends and social connections contribute to overall health and wellbeing, from lowering risk of heart disease to strengthening the immune system. And pairing up for a healthy activity, like volunteering or exercising, can actually increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with it—even more reason to do it with a buddy. Try some of these ideas to keep your friendships (and your body) strong.
Make a fitness date. Meet up for a class at the gym, split a private Pilates session or train together for a charity walk or race. Research shows that people who partner up for workouts are more apt to follow a consistent exercise regimen (and reap the benefits of regular exercise, like a stronger heart). When you plan a hike or schedule an hour on the tennis court, there’s more incentive to follow through so you don’t let your partner down.
Book a trip together. Whether it’s a fishing trip or spa getaway, getting out of town with a pal is a great way to bond. And the health benefits of taking some time off are impressive—research shows that vacations boost work productivity, increase longevity and improve mood. For example, a study published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal found that compared to people who don’t take regular vacations, those who vacation at least twice a year are less likely to become anxious, tense, depressed or tired, and are more satisfied with their marriage.
Volunteer as a pair. Put in some time with a friend at your local park, library, place of worship or another place that’s meaningful to you. Social interaction with your friend—and with new people—is just one part of the fulfilling experience. A study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that people who do volunteer work report better health and happiness compared to those who don’t volunteer. Experts suspect that volunteering contributes to your happiness levels by increasing empathy and promoting a feeling of gratefulness for your own life.
Make a standing appointment. When you feel lonely, your brain increases production of cortisol, a hormone involved in the “fight or flight” stress response. If cortisol stays elevated for prolonged periods, it can lead to high blood pressure, impaired cognitive function and hormonal imbalances. What’s more, brain research suggests that social exclusion actually hurts, registering in the nervous system like pain. When researchers scanned the brains of people in a situation that simulated social exclusion, their anterior cingulate cortex—the same part of the brain that responds to physical pain—was activated. Experts think that the brain finds social exclusion harmful, so it generates a pain response. You don’t have to be a social butterfly to counteract this effect, but scheduling time for friends will ensure that you get a regular dose of interaction. It’s easy to push off dates with friends when life gets busy, so try scheduling a weekly coffee or tea meet-up or a lunch date just like you would a doctor’s office visit or business meeting.
Join a club. Whether you’re interested in books or cooking, chess or poker, you’ll meet likeminded people when you join a club or group. Bonus: All of these activities challenge your brain, helping protect you from memory loss and the onset of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Make new friends. Not only are there health benefits to the friendships you already have, but building new relationships can be good for you, too. There are mood-boosting benefits to cultivating casual relationships with the regulars you run into at the book store, gym or around town. Research has shown that multiple positive interactions with others cause the brain to release higher levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine.