Christmas with housemates

Social fitness: spending time with family and friends can improve your health, even over Zoom

Posted by for Wellbeing

All of those Christmas Zoom calls might actually be one of the most beneficial thing you do for your health this festive period.

What exactly does ‘healthy’ mean to you? If we believed what we saw on a lot of social media accounts, it would involve working out five times a week, only eating homemade meals and following a strict routine. But true health isn’t that simple. 

2020 has shown us how easily all of these things can fall by the wayside, and god knows what this year would have meant for us if we followed that prescriptive version of health. Because there’s more to being ‘healthy’ than how much you move and what you eat.

It turns out, social fitness is actually the most important aspect of our lives. In fact, one of the biggest pieces of research on human health by Harvard Univeristy shows that our relationships, and how happy we are in our relationships, have more of an influence on health, both physically and mentally, than anything else, including exercise. 

“As humans, we are naturally social creatures,” explains chartered counselling psychologist Dr Kirstie Fleetwood Meade from The Untamed Collective. “We really do need social interaction on a regular basis. Good relationships make us feel supported, which helps us achieve more in our lives as our agency is increased. Plus, when we support other people it increases our self-esteem and our self-confidence. It also builds our resilience to recover more quickly from illnesses – we’ve all been experiencing stressful life experiences recently, but connections are a big buffer to the ups and downs of life.”

Virtual Christmas
Virtual connection can still help with loneliness and improve your health.

And it’s not just our mental health that is protected by being around others. If you’re concerned about being away from your gym (again) over the festive period, you might be interested to know that Harvard concluded people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships was a better predictor of their physical health than their cholesterol levels were. 

By no means does this mean that movement is not an important factor in our health, because a sedentary lifestyle has an undeniably negative impact. But it does mean that chasing physical health while rejecting social health is redundant, particularly if you’ve spent the vast majority of this year doing HIIT in your bedroom but haven’t found time to Zoom your family. Relieve yourself of the pressure to follow a set workout routine, do meal prep or hit five-figure step count. One of the most productive things you can do for your health this Christmas is connect with your family and friends, be that virtually or in person (where local lockdown rules allow).

Don’t think that’s us neglecting the health dangers of going around hugging everyone without care for coronavirus transmission. If you’re not able to be with friends or family in person for Christmas, simply talking to your loved ones is also going to give your health a boost. “Is it the same as in-person socialising? No, I don’t think it is. But in this day and age I think it is valuable and important in its own right as a way of maintaining connections with other people and developing a sense of belonging,” says Dr Meade. 

While a 2017 study did find that the “digitalisation” of our lives should not replace offline friendships, a  piece of research by the University of California found that “digital behaviours serve the same purpose and encompass the same core qualities as face-to-face relationships” for teenagers. And, in 2020, a study found that any form of connection, even virtual, can combat loneliness for six months.

“When our mental health takes a dip we tend to withdraw and go inwards, instead of reaching out. We might feel like we don’t want to be a burden on other people. But actually, what we need to do in order to feel less isolated is reach out and connect with other people, even if it is through FaceTime or Zoom,” adds Dr Meade. 

And don’t panic: it’s not about scheduling hours and hours of virtual hangouts with friends and family just to keep up social fitness, though, as “social connectedness isn’t necessarily about having loads of friends, being really popular or talking for hours and hours on the phone. It’s more about being part of a group which gives you that sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and that the people share the same values as you,” according to Dr Meade. 

Of course, Christmas isn’t always a happy time for everyone and in some circumstances spending time with family isn’t always a joyous occasion. So it’s always worth being mindful of how engaging with certain people is going to make you feel. “2020 has certainly shown us that it’s really important to prioritise and that there are some relationships we just need to let go of. Spending time with people that make you make you feel unhappy is not helpful,” she says. 

However, “more than ever, we need to be compassionate towards each other because we’re all going to be feeling more anxious, tenser and perhaps a bit more snappy than usual. So, is it that you find certain people irritating, or is it that being with them is exceptionally difficult and draining on your mental and physical resources?” Dr Meade asks.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that you can stop freaking out over the fact that you might not be living a lifestyle that you have been told is conducive to your health. Forgetting the gym in order to spend time with loved ones, whether in person or via a computer screen, is going to make you healthier. It turns out, you can’t out-exercise a bad social life. 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).