Lifestyle Medicine Week 2021 Day 6

It’s day six of Lifestyle Medicine Week and today our focus is on the importance of social connection and healthy relationships for health and wellbeing.

Human beings are hard wired to connect with each other – we have lived together in groups for millennia – and there is now significant evidence to support the argument that social support and feeling connected has a positive impact on our health.

The benefits for our mental health, including decreased risk of depression, are perhaps obvious. But studies have also shown social connection can help us to reduce the risk of chronic conditions including obesity, some cancers and heart disease. Prescribing connection also has the potential to help our patients in other ways: with for example weight management, diabetes control, hypertension, mood and also our immune function.

Conversely, if we are lonely or isolated this can have a harmful impact on our health. Loneliness has been shown to have as harmful an effect on our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or drinking at levels associated with alcoholism. The risk of heart attack or stroke is also increased by 30 per cent by high levels of loneliness.

Many aspects of our modern lives including increased use of technology are reducing opportunities for social interaction and has led some to talk of an “epidemic of loneliness”. There really is no substitute for real, face-to face connection with others.

As such there have been calls recently within the lifestyle medicine movement to build on the success of a campaign such as “exercise is medicine” with a “connection is medicine” message.

BSLM agrees that it is essential that social connection is given full recognition as a key pillar of lifestyle medicine.

Connection and Covid

Loneliness became a reality for many through lockdown and the need for deeper connection and healthy relationships has never been more evident.

The pandemic deprived many of us of opportunities to see friends and family – and the impact was felt by people of all ages.

Protecting ourselves from the virus came at a cost to our social connection networks.

As we recover from the pandemic and restrictions are eased it is vital that we work to rebuild these networks.

Loneliness and Lifestyle Medicine

Helping to reduce loneliness and promote social connection should be a key part of the lifestyle medicine approach.

As lifestyle medicine practitioners, talking to patients about loneliness and isolation, is critical. And finding ways to reduce these risk factors – for example through “social prescribing” activities which reduce isolation – should be a key part of the lifestyle medicine toolkit.

Just as we should support patients to form healthy habits around diet, physical activity, sleep, stress reduction and harmful substance cessation – so we should offer help to people who are feeling isolated and lonely.

Additional Information and Resources

BSLM regional director Dr Emma Thurston shares her tips and advice for reducing loneliness and isolation: https://www.halcyonwellness.co.uk/post/loneliness

Advice from the NHS and tackling loneliness: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/feelings-symptoms-behaviours/feelings-and-symptoms/feeling-lonely/

Health in Mind, have been promoting positive mental health and wellbeing in Scotland since 1982: www.Health-in-mind.org.uk

“Humans are wired to connect, and this connection affects our health. From psychological theories to recent research, there is significant evidence that social support and feeling connected can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health.” Read the full article here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6125010/”

Social Connection Tips:

  • Look for groups that share similar interests – having something in common is the easiest way to connect. Combining this with something which is healthy in other ways – for example a physical activity session – can give you a double health boost!
  • Invest in your connections: be organised and fix dates in your diary to see friends or family. Plan ahead and this will give you something to look forward to
  • Disconnect to connect – unplug to unwind … technology and social media can help us to introduce us to others with a shared interest. But without careful management and rationing our time online it can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Work on your communication skills – both listening and talking are imperative to build connections
  • Schedule time for relationship building … that may be as simple as arranging a walk with a friend after work

Healthy Relationships and Love … Positive feelings, especially those of love, can have a positive impact on the body, such as:

  • Activate the areas of the brain responsible for memory, attention, motivation, emotions (e.g. limbic system)
  • Reduce stress
  • Reduce anxiety (by increasing inhibitor tone in specific areas of the cerebral cortex)
  • Increase immune response and healing capacity
  • Decreasing substance abuse
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