Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Healthiest People I Know

There is a group of people that frequent the Y who are fondly referred to as the breakfast bunch. They spend a few hours at the Y most weekday mornings, but physical exercise occupies only a portion of their time. They arrive before sunrise and warmly greet each other, making small talk with the Y staff along the way. They each get their workout in, ranging from shooting hoops to lap swimming to visiting the Fitness Center. After showering, they gather at the tables in the lobby and wind down the morning sharing about their weeks, their families, and their lives. Sometimes, they follow up their Y visit by going out to breakfast. They enjoy their time together. I believe this is the healthiest group of people at the Y.

In spite of technology that allows us to connect with more people, more efficiently, we are a society of individuals becoming increasingly isolated. Busy schedules prevent deepening relationships and friendships become categorized networks. This is unhealthy.

Scientifically, we began to see the ill effects of isolation from Dr. Lisa Berman's Alameda County Study (originally published 1979). In the study, her team looked at the lives of 7,000 people in Alameda County over 9 years. They studied the quantity (number of relationships) and quality (depth of relationships) that these people had developed. In short, the study showed that the most isolated people were three times more likely to die versus those with stronger, healthier social bonds. Variables proved irrelevant, both in age and lifestyle. "The protective value of connection [relationships] showed, under statistical multivariate analysis, to be present in all ages [30-69]... [and] even in the presence of health hazards such as smoking, obesity, alcohol use, poverty, poor use of health services, and poor health at the start of the study, people who had strong social ties lived significantly longer than those who did not." (Hallowell, Edward M. Connect).

The key to those who were most healthy and lived longer were those who had several kinds of connections. These included churches, family, friends, clubs, service groups, and similar social organizations. The connections varied from person to person, but ultimately the more deep relationships, the better. Those who were in the most danger of dying were the 10-15% who were most isolated. Similar studies conducted internationally have replicated these findings over the past 30 years. (Hallowell, Connect).

There is a retired couple who comes into the Y daily. During my first days working at the Y, the gentleman (always recognizable in Miami Hurricanes gear) yelled across the lobby, "Who are you?" I introduced myself. "Well, Tuckey," he said, "the coffee pot is not getting as hot as it used to. Fix that and you'll have done something around here." Since that time, we've developed a friendship. We talk regularly about faith, sports, and heating systems. These folks will tell you that they come to this place for exercise, but most importantly they come here to visit their "family." Their friends are here. Their loved ones are here. And the Y wouldn't be the same place without them.

In a recent health journal, two BYU professors reported that social connections can improve our odds of survival by 50 percent (PLoS Medicine). According to them, social isolation or low social interaction compares to these well known risk factors: smoking 15 cigarettes a day, alcoholism, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.

Will finding a new friend solve your health challenges and ensure a long life? Not necessarily. However, science continues to show that investing in people, valuing relationships, and dedicating time to listening to and learning from others is emotionally and physically beneficial. Humans are hard wired for personal and supernatural connections. Eat healthy, exercise, and don't starve yourself of relationships. It all matters.