We've recently been exploring the idea that exercise can benefit not only your physical health but also your cognitive functioning and emotional well-being. But what about effects that go beyond the individual? We look at the relationship between exercise and social relationships.
Like most relationships, the association between physical health and social relationships goes two ways. That's why this article is split into two halves: The effects of social relationships on physical health and exercise, and the effects of physical health and exercise on social relationships.
Part I: The effects of social relationships on physical health
Most research into the relationship between physical fitness and social functioning has been conducted in terms of the effect of social support networks on physical and mental health. The findings are impressive. Again and again, a strong association between the quality of social relationships and indicators of physical and mental health has been demonstrated. Measures of interpersonal relationships have been related to mortality, psychiatric and physical morbidity, and adjustment to and recovery from chronic diseases. And the research goes beyond association: Intervention programmes that have focused on improving social support have shown positive effects on physical and mental health. There is a direct causal effect. The flipside is that poor social relationships are an actual risk factor for all sorts of diseases and even death.
So what does this imply for you as an individual considering your health and fitness regime? Well, it seems that you need to consider more than just your weekly hours at the gym if you want to protect and improve your physical health. Nurturing social relationships of all kinds – family, friends, romantic attachments – is as important to your long-term physical health as fitness indicators such as cardiovascular stamina or muscle strength. So follow that exercise plan, but make sure you get some quality time with loved ones as well.
Part II: The effects of exercise and physical health on social relationships
Investigating benefits of physical exercise at an individual level, you come across an enormous range of research. Whether it's physical or mental health that's being improved, cognitive or emotional functioning, disease cure or prevention – there's lots of evidence out there to support the idea that, for any one individual, a fitness regime is likely to be beneficial on many levels. Go beyond the individual, however, and the research tapers off dramatically. There is very little about the relationship between exercise and personal relationships and virtually nothing about exercise and the wider community. And yet it stands to reason that such effects must exist.
The idea that exercise might influence your personal relationships does not seem far-fetched. Unfortunately, it hasn't been researched in any detail. What follows is speculation on possible effects, based on existing research findings in similar domains.
The emotional benefits of exercise, both short-term and long-term, are well documented. Exercise improves mood, increases optimism and is associated with a higher quality of life. It can also protect from, or even combat, anxiety and depression. It seems reasonable to hypothesise that these effects may also have a positive influence on social relationships. If you're generally feeling good about yourself and the world, chances are you'll be more able to make the most of your existing relationships, as well as being more open to new relationships.
Once the physical benefits of an exercise regime kick in, people often report higher levels of self confidence, self efficacy, and satisfaction with their (leaner, fitter) bodies. This could have an influence on personal relationships – if you're feeling good about yourself, you're more likely to be perceived as attractive by others. That would make it easier to form both platonic friendships and sexual relationships.
Many fitness programmes focus on improving strength, stamina and flexibility. Without wishing to get to suggestive, these qualities are applicable in intimate relationships in all sorts of ways... Any volunteers for a research study into this phenomenon?
Finally, the simple act of going to a gym or participating in a sport is a social activity in itself. You mix with other people who have similar goals to your own. That gives you the chance to broaden your social circle, make some friends, and possibly even find the love of your life. And it's a far healthier way of doing so than sitting on the sofa surfing social networking sites!
Conclusion: A more holistic approach to exercise
Considering physical health purely from the standpoint of the individual is rapidly becoming an outdated approach. Mainstream medicine is starting to acknowledge the influence of factors that go beyond the individual on health and illness, and the health and fitness industry is beginning to follow suit. We are social animals and it does not seem surprising that our physical health is closely bound up with our social relationships. It is not yet clear how to harness this phenomenon to our best advantage, but we can start by considering our social context when we're trying to improve our physical health.