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Why Building A Strong Community Is Vital To Our Health

Humans are not designed to be alone. We’ve evolved to live our lives as individual members of a large, supportive group. Most notably, the World Health Organization (WHO) now lists “social support networks” as a determinant of health, which means it is a factor that affects an individual’s health. Social relationships are vital to maintaining good health. Studies have shown that human beings thrive when they have strong positive relationships with other human beings and adults who are socially active live longer and are healthier than their more isolated peers.

The benefits of strong social ties include:

  • Lower risks of mental illnesses, such as depression

  • A higher likelihood of positive health behaviour, such as physical activity

  • A lower likelihood of negative health behaviours, such as excessive alcohol use

  • Overall lower risk of morbidity and mortality from a wide range of causes.

These benefits arise not only as a result of having a sufficient number of relationships but also from having relationships that are close and within well-integrated groups of people. However 21st century living makes it hard to keep such relationships nourished due to busy workloads and the rise in social media.

Adults who have few social contacts (i.e., who are socially isolated) or feel unhappy about their social relationships (i.e., who are lonely) are at increased risk of premature mortality. The influence of social relationships on mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors, including lack of physical activity and obesity. Researchers have identified three main pathways through which social relationships may affect health: behavioural, psychological and physiological mechanisms. Health-risk behaviours associated with loneliness and social isolation include physical inactivity and smoking.

Loneliness is linked to lower self-esteem and limited use of active coping methods, while social isolation predicts decline in self-efficacy. Researchers have found that rejection and isolation switches your genes into a more inflammatory state. Over the long term, this makes your immune system weaker and predisposes you to a variety of life-threatening conditions, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and obesity. Being lonely means you’re 30% more likely to have a stroke or a heart attack! In fact, high social stress is an even bigger risk factor for dying from a chronic disease than physical inactivity, alcohol intake and smoking – put together.

One way we are plugging the gaping hole that’s been left by the decline of our community and social relationships, is by making connections on social media. While social media can be brilliant if you use it to connect with people who share your interests and learn from those you admire, it’s important to be aware of its dangers in terms of your health. Results from some studies have suggested that social media use might increase the risk of mental health problems and might compromise well-being more generally. Use of social media may detract from face-to-face relationships, reduce investment in meaningful activities, increase sedentary behaviour by encouraging more screen time, lead to Internet addiction, and erode self-esteem through unfavourable social comparisons.

How to build a strong community

Building a strong community is about engaging with those that are there to support you through all the highs and lows. This may mean nourishing the friendships you currently have or expanding your community to include those that share common interests. Ways to do this include:

  • Diarize time with your friends – regularly diarize time to meet up with friends, in person. The frequency will depend on many things including workload, family and distance but having it in your diary means it’s more likely to happen. In our busy 21st century lifestyles, scheduling is the way forward.

  • Make moai mates – the Okinawans are people, who live in Okinawa, Japan, that live longest in the world. One concept that contributes to this is moai, groups of five friends that have committed to each for life. Feeling connected is not about the number of friends you have but the quality of those friendships.

  • Saying yes – we have become so focused on being able to say no to support our wellbeing, that we are forgetting to say yes! Whilst being able to say no means you are prioritising you, sometimes saying no means we are missing out on connections and social interactions. So where it suits, say yes to that coffee or lunch date with a friend; say yes to joining a new class or say yes to that work night out.

  • Become a regular – regular visits somewhere and a happy, open demeanour should lead you to becoming connected to a new group of people with a similar interest. Some examples include a weekly yoga or Pilates class, join a local sports club (snooker, badminton, hurling, football, martial arts), join a local walking or running club, join a local book club, take a regular class or workshop in a passion you wish to pursue, get involved in the social side of your gym.

  • Step out of your comfort zone – they say change begins at the end of your comfort zone. So chat to the person beside you at the start of your gym class, join the class you have been putting off because you won’t know anyone, or attend that pub quiz!

Do you have other ways to build a strong community? Please share them with us!


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