Enjoying healthy and meaningful relationships and better social connection is essential for good mental and physical health.
As human beings we are hard wired to connect with each other; we are social beings and our family and community relationships give our lives purpose and meaning. Connecting with others not only helps us to survive but to thrive. And it is for this reason that BSLM prioritises the importance of healthy relationships as one of the six core pillars of lifestyle medicine.
From a physical health point of view there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating a link between the quality of our social connections and the associated risk of conditions including obesity, heart disease and even some cancers. Our mental health too is closely linked to our relationships with others, and loneliness is a key risk factor for depression.
Studies have calculated that loneliness can be as harmful to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day – or drinking at levels associated with alcoholism. High levels of loneliness can increase the risk of heart attack and strokes by 30 per cent.
BSLM believes that reducing loneliness and promoting social connection should therefore be a key part of the lifestyle medicine toolkit: connection truly is medicine.
A good lifestyle medicine practitioner must be ready to talk to their patient about loneliness, isolation and relationships. We should be ready to “prescribe connection” and offer help and advice on where and how people can meet others and feel less lonely and isolated. Here, social prescribing can be an incredibly powerful tool, and it’s essential we have in place high quality networks which we can refer people into.
Lifestyle medicine practitioners should start by asking patients how much they see other people and where and how most of their social interactions take place. It’s about discussing both the quantity as well as the quality of those relationships. In the consulting room, start by asking patients about their friendships, social networks and how much time they spend on their own or with others.
It’s also important that we consider the many different opportunities for connection we can tap into: in the home, in the workplace, in our community, and in social groups and activities including sports and leisure.
Many of these networks have suffered because of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns and restrictions which have reduced our ability to see family and friends and meet in groups. As we recover from the pandemic, BSLM believes we must act to rebuild these networks which play such a crucial role in our health and wellbeing.
Some aspects of our modern lifestyles are also acting to the detriment of our relationships and social connections. While the internet and social media can in some instances bring human beings together, it can also have the opposite effect. Spending long amounts of time on our screens and online cuts us off from people, reducing the amount of “face to face” time we spend with each other. Lifestyle medicine encourages and advocates for greater in person connection as the best way for us to reduce the risk of loneliness and isolation.
In summary: a lifestyle medicine approach to improving health and wellbeing should prioritise the importance of social connection and healthy relationships. These are critical to a lifestyle approach to healthy longevity alongside being active, a healthy diet, getting good quality sleep, avoiding harmful substances, and reducing stress.