February is National Heart Health Month and frequently a time for us to focus on changes we can make in our diet and exercise habits for improved cardiovascular health. While these areas are important, we sometimes overlook one of the greatest and most enjoyable areas for investment in our long term health, that of relationships with others. People who have satisfying relationships are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. Additionally, lacking strong social support and connections has a seriously detrimental impact, as demonstrated by depression rates, cognitive decline, and even mortality rates.
Why are relationships important? In mitigating the impact of harmful levels of stress on our bodies, they also benefit our other regulatory systems. Relationships trigger the release of stress reducing hormones (oxytocin and dopamine), as well as improving the function of our coronary arteries, insulin regulation, and immune system. So just what does it take to develop relationships that result in health benefits? It’s probably easier than you think and it can take place in a myriad of ways. As you would expect, there is no one answer that will fit every person and there are specific benefits that result from many different types of relationship patterns. Wondering about how to maximize the benefits of your daily interactions?
1. Share Laughs for Your Heart
From increasing our immunity, to improving our brain function and blood pressure, laughter has benefits that impact our entire body. Find people you enjoy laughing with…play games with your children, watch a silly movie with your spouse, or try a new experience (perhaps your first yoga class?) with a lighthearted friend. Laughter doesn’t require a deep relationship and its benefits are well documented. Increased blood flow, respiration, and heart rates result in improvements in cardiovascular function and blood pressure, as well as insulin regulation. Not surprisingly, laughter also improves our response to pain, resulting in quicker healing and less need for medication.
2. Touch for Your Heart
Cuddle your kids a little longer. Give your spouse a big kiss in the morning. Treat yourself to a massage. Each of these actions maximizes the relationship related health benefits of touch. As humans, we are hardwired to seek out touch through its effects in increasing oxytocin (the cuddling hormone) and dopamine (strongly linked with our reward system). These hormones help us to bond with others, mitigate the negative impacts of stress, and even speed healing of heart tissue after it has been damaged, while lowered levels are associated with depression. As any positive touch can result in these benefits, find ways to include it in your days. Rub a loved one’s shoulders, shake hands or lightly touch when greeting others, and don’t be afraid to hug a family member when you say good bye.
3. Celebrate Others for Your Heart
While touch is part of affection, choosing to focus on the positive aspects of our relationships is another way to maximize the health benefits of our relationships. Expanding on the practice of gratitude, you can choose to take the time to recognize the gifts that others bring into your life. It can be helpful to start with the people that we enjoy the most. A simple practice is to write down a few things about another person for which you are thankful each week. You can also choose to recognize the contributions that others have made to your life in the form of a thank you letter or journal entry. Lastly, choosing to practice these acts of gratitude in relationships with which we struggle can be an enormously effective way of ameliorating the negative impacts of these relationships on our health and stress levels.
Not surprisingly, there is no single type of relationship or interaction that is key to our overall health. Just like the complexity of our lives and our connections with others, the benefits of relationships come from many interactions including those of the hormonal, cardiovascular, and neurological systems of the body. While relationships are naturally occurring and essential to our health, investing in and improving them as we would with any other area of wellness can result in the greatest levels of fulfillment, health, and disease resistance over time.
Lastly, Cultivate a Relationship with Yourself
Find your me time. Self care is an important practice that will allow you to be present in your relationships. Many people find that a good workout is rejuvenating and gives them the energy they need to invest in relationships, and home cardio equipment can make getting that workout a reality. You can shop for deep discounts on home exercise equipment here.
About the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.
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