Why social fitness may be more important for longevity than diet, weight loss, exercise or not smoking
When it comes to making lifestyle choices for improved health and longevity, most of us focus on diet, exercise, and kicking bad habits like smoking.
These factors are undeniably important, but there's another aspect that is often overlooked — social fitness.
Research suggests that social fitness might be more important than these other factors in promoting a longer, healthier life. In this article, we'll dive into the evidence supporting the role of social fitness and its importance when it comes to making life choices.
What is social fitness?
Social fitness refers to our ability to successfully navigate and engage in social interactions, build meaningful relationships, and adapt to different social environments.
It is about your ability to make friends, keep strong friendships, and smoothly handle social situations. It’s also about being a great listener, expressing empathy, and being able to set as well as respect boundaries.
Socially fit people are longevity champions
Studies have shown that people with strong social connections have a staggering 50% increased chance of living longer than their more isolated counterparts.
In groundbreaking meta-analysis conducted by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton, 2010, it was discovered that individuals with strong social connections had a 50% lower mortality risk compared to those with weaker social ties.
This effect was consistent across age, sex, initial health status, and cause of death. Moreover, the same study found that the impact of social fitness on mortality risk was even greater than well-established risk factors like smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and physical inactivity.
This astounding revelation underscores the need to prioritize social fitness as a key component of a healthy lifestyle.
How social fitness increases health and well-being
The reason social fitness has such a profound impact on our health and longevity lies in its ability to influence various aspects of our well-being.
A few ways that social fitness affects our lives:
Stress reduction: Social connections have been proven to help lower stress levels, which in turn can reduce the risk of chronic diseases and improve immune function.
Emotional support: Having a strong social network provides emotional support during difficult times, improving mental health and resilience.
Positive influence: Our social circles can influence our behaviour and attitude, promoting healthier habits and discouraging detrimental ones.
- Sense of belonging: Social connections contribute to a sense of belonging and purpose, which are essential for overall happiness and well-being.
While diet, exercise, and abstaining from smoking, alcohol and other substances are essential for a healthy life, research confirms that social fitness is the most important factor in determining health and longevity.
Making social fitness a part of your lifestyle is essential to your overall well-being. The following recommendations may be helpful to you when it comes to prioritizing social fitness in your life. First, dedicate time to nurture relationships with friends and family, whether that means reconnecting with old acquaintances or fostering new bonds.
Engaging in social activities is another excellent way to enhance your social fitness. Explore clubs, attend events, or volunteer for community projects to surround yourself with like-minded individuals.
Additionally, while digital communication has its merits, focus on face-to-face interactions to create deeper, more meaningful connections with others.
Cultivating empathy and kindness is vital for strengthening your social bonds, so strive to be a supportive and understanding friend. Lastly, laughter and positivity are crucial components of a socially fit lifestyle. Embrace humor and maintain a positive outlook, creating lasting memories with those around you.
By following these guidelines, you can effectively incorporate social fitness into your daily life and reap its numerous benefits.
Some examples of the impact social fitness has on health:
- Socializing or a simple hug with friends or family can increase our oxytocin levels. This "cuddle hormone" is not just for snuggling – it's also linked to lower inflammation and faster healing.
- In the animal kingdom, some creatures also benefit from social bonds. Take the naked mole-rat, for example. These not-so-cute critters live in tight-knit communities and can survive for up to 30 years, making them the Methuselah of rodents
- Dancing brings people together physically and can also lower the risk of dementia, increase balance and coordination, and improve cardiovascular health.
What about dogs? Is your dog socially fit?
While research on social fitness in dogs might not be as extensive as in humans, there are some intriguing findings that highlight the importance of socialization and companionship for dogs.
Just like humans, dogs are social creatures. They have evolved alongside us for thousands of years and have adapted to social living in groups, and they can get lonely too.
Dogs who are left alone for long periods can experience separation anxiety, which can manifest as destructive behaviours, excessive barking, and even health issues.
Playdates, dog parks, and a sniff-walk around the neighbourhood can offer essential social stimulation your dog needs and help them develop essential communication skills.
Spending quality time together with your pup whenever possible is important for their health and well-being.
One common mistake that can drastically reduce social fitness in dogs
Proper socialization from an early age is essential for dogs, especially when they're puppies.
A study by Howell, King, and Bennett (2015) found that early socialization of puppies can reduce the risk of aggression and fear-related behaviour later in life.
Unfortunately, there are still many well-meaning veterinarians who recommend not socializing puppies until they are four months old, which is the equivalent of children not being allowed to play with other kids until they are 6 years old.
This lack of socialization, roughhousing, and play causes severe behaviour challenges, such as aggression, fearfulness, separation anxiety, poor bite inhibition and other problems that can last a lifetime.
For more information on how to ensure proper early socialization and keep your puppy protected against common infections and diseases click here.
You and your dog can help each other stay socially fit!
Studies have shown that dog owners are more likely to engage in conversations with strangers and form new friendships, thanks to their canine companions. I often meet people while out walking my dog Pax, and whenever I can, I let him socialize with other dogs.
A well-socialized dog is a happier, healthier, and better-behaved dog. So, make sure to give your canine friend plenty of opportunities to socialize and form strong bonds with both humans and other dogs!
Now that we've explored the world of social fitness for humans and dogs, here are a few tips on how you and your dog can become social fitness champions.
10 ways to improve your social fitness:
Nurture existing friendships and make an effort to form new connections. Invite your friends over for dinner or go out together.
Participate in group activities, such as clubs, gyms, dog walking and hiking, or sports. Do your best to include your dog in your activities.
Volunteer for community projects to meet like-minded friends, or take a group trip somewhere.
Focus on face-to-face connections and try not to rely solely on digital communication.
Attend social events and gatherings, go out to see shows and embrace new experiences. Create traditions within your family or with a group of friends.
Organize a neighbourhood gathering. You will be surprised at how keen people are to participate.
Learn to listen actively and be open to other perspectives. Opinions are not truth, they are just opinions. Life would be boring if we all were the same.
Cultivate empathy and practice kindness whenever you can. Before you judge or criticize someone, ask what it would be like to be in the other person's shoes.
Maintain a healthy work-life balance and choose work that you love, a company that is functional, and a team that is happy.
- Explore new hobbies and share your experience with others. Embrace laughter and humour — it is the “salt of life”.
10 ways to improve your dog's social fitness:
Begin socialization early to expose your dog to various environments and experiences.
Schedule regular playdates with other dogs to promote social interaction and friendships, and arrange sleepovers if possible.
Attend positive dog training classes to build confidence and communication skills. Beware of negative reinforcement.
Expose your dog to various types of dogs — different breeds, sizes, and temperaments. Be mindful that your dog doesn’t get trampled or traumatized and also respects the boundaries of other dogs. Early socialization teaches dogs to play nice.
Involve your dog in family activities and outings to encourage bonding and socialization whenever possible. Take your dog with you to stores and places that welcome dogs.
Provide mental and physical stimulation through games, toys, exercise, and gentle play.
Teach your dog obedience, how to recognize toys, and do tricks. Be patient and consistent when introducing your dog to new experiences or environments.
Never force your dog to do something they are afraid of but do not give up. Practice makes perfect.
Provide positive reinforcement and praise for good social behaviour. Do not use negative training methods and tools, such as shock collars or choke chains, read more here.
- Monitor your dog's body language to ensure they are comfortable and enjoying their social interactions.
- Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton, "Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review." (2010) https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
- Nicole K. Valtorta, Mona Kanaan, Simon Gilbody, Sara Ronzi, and Barbara Hanratty, "Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies.” (2016) https://heart.bmj.com/content/102/13/1009
- Dr. Robert Waldinger, "What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness
- Aparna Shankar, Anne McMunn, and Andrew Steptoe,"Loneliness, social isolation, and behavioural and biological health indicators in older adults.” (2011) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21534675/
- Howell, King, and Bennett, "Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior (2015) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6067676/
- Nagasawa, Mogi, and Kikusui, "Attachment between humans and dogs" (2009) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5884.2009.00402.x