You’ve heard of friends with benefits…but friends with health benefits? Yep, turns out that having platonic friends is actually good for you! Read on for 5 ways that catching up with pals makes you healthier—and how to maximize the benefits:
THE BENEFIT: Protects You From Dementia
A Swedish survey of people 75 years old and older found women and men who kept in contact with a variety of friends and relatives had a lower risk of developing dementia. The researchers said it was possible that juggling many relationships was a mental exercise that kept brains “in tone.”
MAXIMIZE IT: Instead of catching up with friends over dinner, schedule some brain workouts. Join them for trivia nights at a neighborhood bar, or sign up for an interesting class together at the local community college. Not only will you work your brain, but scheduled activities will ensure that you don’t let too much time pass before seeing your pal.
THE BENEFIT: Adds Years to Your Life
The Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging studied almost 1,500 seniors for a full decade. One interesting finding: having good friends increases longevity even more than having close relationships with adult children and other family. And those with the largest amount of close friends outlived those with the smallest amount by 22 percent.
MAXIMIZE IT: Expand your social network—it’s never too late to make new friends. Host a small get-together at home and ask close friends to extend the invitation to someone in their circle who you don’t know well. Or search a site like meetup.com for local get-togethers related to your hobbies and interests. And don’t be afraid to show up alone—you’ll be more likely to introduce yourself to new people without the safety net of arriving with a group.
THE BENEFIT: Lowers Stress
In a two-year study of 500 women with suspected coronary artery disease, it was found that those with a strong support system were more likely to be alive after two years. Not only that, but their rates of hypertension and diabetes were also lower. One explanation is that feeling lonely increases production of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your brain, which can lead to an increase in blood pressure and hormonal imbalances. Research also suggests that the nervous system actually registers social exclusion as physical pain.
MAXIMIZE IT: It’s easy for day-to-day life to get in the way of making dinner dates or big plans with friends…and sometimes we don’t notice how long it’s been until we feel that ache of loneliness. But busy friends don’t have to carve out huge chunks of time to connect. You both have to grocery shop, right? Pick a Saturday to run some local errands together—trim your hair, do laundry, pick some things up from the store, or cook dinner together. Who knew errands could be so fun?
THE BENEFIT: Aids in Recovery
A study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that there’s something to the idea of surrounding yourself with loved ones for recovery. Women without close friends were four times as likely to die from the cancer as women who had 10 or more friends. Interestingly, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend didn’t have an impact, so even those with a small number of friends who lived far away benefited from the relationships.
MAXIMIZE IT: Even if you’re 100 percent healthy, everyone can stand to reach out to out-of-town friends more often. Schedule visits or keep in touch with emails and phone calls., but think outside the box, too. Challenge your buds to an iPhone game of Words With Friends, mail a “just because” care package, share music mixes on Spotify or Grooveshark, or start a long-distance book or movie club—all great ways to keep in touch even if you don’t have time or energy for a long catchup on the phone or over email.
THE BENEFIT: Helps Good Habits Stick
Been wanting to drop a few pounds, cross “run a marathon” off your bucket list, or take up spinning? Research has shown that those who partner up to hit the gym are more likely to follow through with a consistent workout routine.
MAXIMIZE IT: Ask a friend on the same fitness level as you to set a new goal together—whether it be to pick up a totally new sport or reach a new level of fitness in something you both already do. You don’t have to schedule every workout together, but commit to meeting once a week for a yoga class, run, or workout DVD…and make sure to leave time after to catch up over brunch or a cup of tea.