Thinking of staying home this Friday night and wallowing on your couch? It’s not just the tub of ice cream that you’ll consume that’ll do you in. It turns out maintaining friendships is equally important to long-term health.
Social networks–the real kind, consisting of people you know and see in person and not on Facebook or Twitter–are as important to your health as exercise and diet, a new study finds. What’s more, the number social ties you have directly affects your health.
The report, out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, details the kinds of social connections that are important at each stage of our lives. When young and old, the total number of friends we have is important, whereas in our middle years, we need fewer but deeper relationships.
The study set out to see how our social connections affect us as we age and found that they have a profound physiological impact. Pulling data from for large sample groups of the U.S. population, the researchers, led by Kathleen Mullan Harris, uncovered the links. These surveys included the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, one of the largest long-term studies on relationships, behavior, and biology.
During adolescence, says the paper, reduced social connections increase the risk of inflammation and abdominal obesity as much as a lack of physical exercise. And in later life, a social isolation increases blood pressure.
The study found that in our middle years, what matters is the amount of support we get from our friends and acquaintances, not the number of them. “The relationship between health and the degree to which people are integrated in large social networks is strongest at the beginning and at the end of life,” Harris said, “and not so important in middle adulthood, when the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships matters.”
This paper mirrors the results of a 2013 study from Brigham Young University, which found that “low social interaction has the equivalent lifespan impact as smoking 15 cigarettes daily or being a raging alcoholic. Cutting yourself off from others is worse, even, than inactivity. And twice as bad as obesity.”
So it might be time to switch off your Facebook and go out with some real people. Not only will you live longer, but you’ll be happier along the way.