Being Social Helps You Be Well

By Saling, Joseph

Want one more reason to exercise? It can help you stay socially active. And an active social life is important to your health.

In fact, keeping up your social network can mean as much to your physical health as the aerobic benefits you get at the gym, says Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., spokesperson for the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University. Even without exercise, people who spend time with others tend to stay healthier and more independent.

Dr. Cohen, author of "The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life," points to a study of a group of "couch potatoes." While they got little or no daily exercise, they were very active socially. They took classes, joined clubs, played games, enjoyed hobbies or volunteered. "After 11 years," Dr. Cohen says, "social engagement proved to have the same positive impact on health as regular exercise."

"Our social functioning is part of what makes us human," adds Allan Anderson, M.D., who chairs the Maryland Psychiatric Association's Geriatric Committee. "Our interaction with others lets us get the things we want out of life."

Drs. Anderson and Cohen also point to research showing that staying socially and mentally engaged helps the immune system. "There are two research streams that point to the same thing," Dr. Cohen says. "The first is behavioral. When people are involved in social activities they get a sense of mastery and control and tend to stay healthy. The second is biological. Biologists often note a positive effect on the immune system in people with a sense of mastery and control."

Losing your social network is a risk of age. You may lose those with whom you have been close. And, "some people develop age-related disabilities," Dr. Anderson says. You may have language or mobility problems from a stroke, or you may have a condition such as arthritis that makes it hard to get around. Some people withdraw, embarrassed or scared by hurdles to staying active.

It can seem tough to keep up social networks when people around you move away, get sick or die, Dr. Anderson says, but it's important. "Marilyn is one of my successful patients," he says. "When her husband died, she decided she needed to become more involved with others. So she consciously became more active in her church and started visiting nursing homes regularly. She's always played the piano, so she goes and plays for an hour a week at two different nursing home." She makes people happy with her music and finds many new friends.

To add social activities, start by listing the things you enjoy. If you have always felt creative, for instance, take art classes or craft workshops at the local college. Many health clubs and YMCAs have exercise programs for seniors that let you stay physically active while meeting new people.

You can look up your local Office on Aging in the phone book and check on volunteer programs, senior citizen clubs and other classes aimed at seniors. And working part time, both doctors say, is an option you shouldn't overlook.

Remember two things, Dr. Cohen says:

  • Look for activities that last. "If you take a three-day class in something, chances are you aren't going to have much time to get to really interact with people. Most friendships come from knowing someone for a long time. So consider long-term volunteering or taking a class that lasts a whole semester."

  • It's never too late. "If you feel you're in a rut," he says, "it's not because of age, and it's never too late to get out of it. A woman who is 94 came up to me at a conference recently and said she'd taken up sculpting two years before. Then she said, 'I don't know what I was doing for the first 92 years of my life.'"

Balance your social portfolio

A balanced activity portfolio can help ensure your social well-being.

"Think of a square divided into four boxes," says Dr. Cohen. "Across the top are group activities and individual activities. Underneath are high energy/high mobility and low energy/low mobility. The idea is to combine those concepts to balance and diversify your portfolio." Here are some examples:

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