Myles Spar, MD: Can Social Connection Keep You Healthy?
Loneliness was on already the rise in the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the social isolation that it caused certainly exacerbated the problem. Personally, the relief and satisfaction I have felt since being able to reconnect in person with friends and family have made me look into the health effects of isolation and what we have all had to deal with.
Why Is Social Isolation Bad for Us?
Social connection generally refers to having someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing a personal problem. Poor social connection affects not only mood and mental health but also physical health and longevity. In fact, studies show that social isolation has a greater impact on health than smoking, obesity, or hypertension.
When people feel a lack of connection, they are more likely to feel depressed and anxious. The long-term effects of social isolation include increased inflammation as well as increased susceptibility to disease. But, just like engaging in an exercise program can improve your physical and emotional health, creating a connection with others can boost your overall health.
Many of us have become so comfortable with being alone that we have developed a sort of inertia. Patients and friends describe how much tougher it is to build the motivation to make plans with others and execute them. But this socialization muscle is one we must redevelop. It may have atrophied over the last year and a half, but pushing yourself to engage with others will help you to be happier and healthier.
Start Connecting With Others
Here are four steps you can take to restore the healthy habit of connecting with others and start reaping the benefits of social connections:
- Each week for the next four weeks, make it a goal to reach out to one person you haven’t had contact with for the past year.
- Plan an outdoor activity like a walk, hike, picnic, or bike ride with at least one other person.
- Try a loving-kindness meditation on YouTube.
- Volunteer for a service project.
Remember, social isolation is not only about loneliness, it’s also a health hazard. We are social creatures, even if we’re introverts. Don’t go it alone, even if that has become your norm. Reach out and share a bit of your life with someone—you’ll be healthier and happier as a result.
Myles Spar, MD, is the National Medical Director of Vault Health, a national medical practice specializing in care for men, and a Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine (ABOIM), which is governed by the American Board of Physician Specialties® (ABPS).