Humans are social animals designed to move. The sooner we realise these universal truths and act on them, the better our quality of life will be. Recent studies have shown that healthy social relationships and exercise can have a positive impact on your mental and physical health in old age.
Loneliness has the ability to make a serious negative impact on our health and in that context being social helps us develop as people, says Dr Saurabh Mehrotra, senior consultant at the Medanta Hospital’s Institute of Neurosciences in Gurugram. Dr Trideep Choudhury, a consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Flt. Lt. Rajan Dhall Hospital in New Delhi contends that society plays an important role in determining physical, psychological, behavioural and attitudinal factors. “Lack of social interactions may cause social dysfunction with a poor quality of life. People with strong and healthy relationships are less likely to feel stressed by challenging situations. Studies show that when people feel lonelier, they have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Add to that the fact that chronic stress raises the risk of heart disease and other health challenges,” says Choudhury.
The new study published in February in the British Medical Journal’s General Psychiatry examined the connection between social relationships and mortality and chronic health conditions. The researchers observed about 8,000 Australian women between 45 and 50 years of age for 20 years. They found that social relationships with family, friends and partners need to be treated as a priority in preventing and treating chronic diseases. They also found that those who had healthy relationships were at a lower risk of picking up multiple long-term conditions in old age. “Social connectedness and relationships are considered to be an important factor in wellbeing. Being social acts as a stress-buster because we share and communicate and, in turn, we get reassurance, develop problem-solving skills and our sense of well-being and self-esteem improves,” says Mehrotra.
Given the busy lives people lead in current times when work is often all-consuming, social relationships become even more important. Nowadays, work is taking everything up and everything else is being pushed back and this imbalance is causing problems in health, family life, and friendships, contends Mehrotra. “One must remember that the work and money which we earn provide us with what we need in life, but working on yourself, your health and social relationships will bring us psychological well-being and happiness. Prioritisation is important,” he says.
He and other experts say that you have to consciously work to develop and maintain healthy social relationships. Good relationships depend upon open and honest communication, says Choudhury. “The more effectively you communicate, the better you connect. During conversations, practice effective communication strategies like asking questions, showing empathy and actively listening. At least once a day, check in with a family member, friend, coworker or fellow service member. Mutual respect and trust are necessary. Having an acceptance of others’ points of view establishes your respect in front of all. It always helps to show up for others,” advises Choudhury.
In addition to social relationships, the other factor that affects the quality of life, especially, cognition (how the brain functions) is exercise. A study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry found that being physically active, irrespective of intensity or activity, at any age once you hit adulthood is linked to better cognitive functions in later life. The researchers also found that for best results, maintaining physical activity all along is the best and it ensures your brain remains sharp.
Plenty of other studies have established numerous benefits of exercise: from fewer pains and aches to lower risk of death and disease. Health experts and doctors, too, encourage physical activity for everyone because of its obvious benefits, including weight, and thereby diabetes, management. Mehrotra calls exercise a “magic medicine.” Exercise boosts our self-esteem, mood, sleep quality, and energy and reduces the risk of stress, says Choudhury. It also helps us control our weight and obesity as well as lower blood sugar level and help insulin in our body work better, he adds.
Exercise also helps in building muscle, which helps maintain good bone health, keeps our heart in good condition and makes the body release good hormones that improve our mood, says Dr Amit Chaudhry, consultant at the Fortis Bone and Joint Institute in Gurugram. As per World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines 150-300 minutes of moderate exercise per week or 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise a week for adults up to the age of 64. Chaudhry recommends that adults do some muscle training focusing on all parts of the body at least twice a week and insists that pre-exercise warm-up and stretching post-workout are important.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.