-On Exercise and Loneliness
Loneliness is as harmful to our health as drinking too much and smoking. We can use exercising with others as a means to increase social connection and our sense of belonging.
Loneliness is a killer. Feeling lonely and lacking social connections is worse for our health than being obese, smoking, or having high blood pressure (1). We are more likely to get sick, heal slower from physical wounds and surgeries, experience higher rates of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, and have worse outcomes if diagnosed or recovering from cancer (2).
Being chronically lonely puts us at a higher risk of dying earlier.
The effects of loneliness don’t stop at the physical level. Feeling isolated affects our mental health, leading to higher rates of depression and anxiety. It contributes to making life stressors feel more challenging and burdensome, placing us at a higher risk for addictive behaviors like excessive drinking and drug abuse (3).
How can strong relationships influence our well-being?
To answer this, let’s look at a famous Harvard longevity study. Started in 1938, and lasting over 74 years, the Harvard Grant and Glueck Study tracked the health and wellbeing of two groups of men from the Boston area (4). Over time, the study expanded to include the men’s offspring and wives (5). The studies tracked the participants’ physical and mental health and kept tabs on the ebbs and flows of their lives. What the study found was that those with stronger social connections lived longer, were healthier, led more productive lives, and recorded higher life satisfaction. This made the strength of one’s social connections a better predictor of longevity and happiness than social class, IQ, or even genes.
Robert Waldinger, one of the directors of the study, shared his findings in a TED Talk titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness.” Since 2016, the video has had more than 22 million views. In his talk, Waldinger notes that “the people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50, were the healthiest at age 80.” Waldinger adds that “good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.” Those with strong social support experienced less mental and cognitive decline as they aged. The study also found that they were less likely to smoke and drink alcohol in excess. In conclusion, Waldinger noted, “the good life is built with good relationships.”
How come relationships affect us so much? It turns out that humans are social animals. From the moment we are born, we rely on our relationships for survival. Dr. Steven Cole, a prominent researcher of social connection and human health, comments how “people haven’t evolved to live alone. We’re highly dependent on others from birth on.” What distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to cooperate with other humans. “Our survival and thriving,” Cole notes, “depends on being part of a community. When we fall out of that sense of connection and community, our bodies respond to that as if we were literally threatened” (6).
Although in our modern world we may feel like we can do it alone, research like Cole’s (7) and the Harvard studies referenced above show that this comes at a cost to our health. Unfortunately, despite living in a world with more connection than ever, loneliness is on the rise. Research comparing data from a biennial survey from 1985 and 2004, noted how Americans in 1985 reported having, on average, three people they would call a “close friend” – someone whom they felt comfortable sharing a personal problem with. In 2004, however, that number dropped to two. Additionally, one in four Americans reported they had no one they felt that close to, a threefold increase from the 1985 results (8).
So now that we know that loneliness is bad for our health and how loneliness is on the rise, how can we use movement and exercise to help us connect with others?
The good news is that exercising regularly can lead to having better relationships, or at least, to having more positive interactions with others. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist whose work has heavily influenced this module’s theme, notes that when we exercise, the brain releases neurochemicals, like endocannabinoids, and endorphins, which act like “social bonding brain chemicals” (9). These chemicals prime our bodies and brains to be more open to connecting with others. Not just because of the “feel-good effects” they have, but because they help shift our perspective to seeing others, and the world around us, as more positive. It’s like putting on a pair of rose-colored glasses that make people’s jokes seem funnier, hugs feel richer, and other folks seem friendlier.
Try this for an impromptu exercise. Think back to the last time you exercised and recall how you felt when you were finished. If you ran into someone afterward, did you laugh or smile at them? Did they smile back? How did the rest of your day go? Are the days you exercise different from the days you don’t?
By tracking these moments, we can discover for ourselves how exercise can make us more social and influence our interactions with others.
Exercising with others can also help us lose weight and maintain an exercise routine. Participating in a weight loss program with a friend makes it easier for us to stick to the program than if we were to do it alone (10). Having someone there waiting for us to show up can help us be more consistent, push harder and work out for longer (11). In the end, exercising with others can lead to greater enjoyment and leave us feeling less stressed out (12). If it’s hard to find the time and motivation to exercise, why not enlist a friend or make a new one at the gym?
What about collaboration and the effects of exercising together and moving in unison?
Renowned historian William H. McNeill spoke about the bonding effects of moving together when describing his experience in the U.S. Army. McNeill was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941. When he began his training, the base he was at was undersupplied and the recruits were ordered to do menial tasks to fill up the time. One of those tasks involved marching for hours in close formation. At first, McNeill thought the drills were useless, but as the hours went by, something shifted. In his 1995 book, Keeping Together in Time, McNeil explains how “words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved… a sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life.”
Moving in unison can give us a sense of being part of a team, empowering us with a feeling that psychologists call “we-agency.” So whether it’s through military training, dance, or a martial arts class, moving together can make us feel that we belong, that we are part of something greater than just ourselves.
A gym, or another place where we work out, can also be a supportive community. Consider the story of retired NFL player David Vobora. Upon retiring from the NFL in 2012, Vobora opened an elite training center in Dallas, TX. “Originally,” he says, “it was a gym for elite athletes, because that’s all I knew” (13). But a couple of years later, Vorbora met a man “that changed everything.”
In 2014, Vobora met U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who lost both arms and legs while serving in Afghanistan. Upon meeting Mills, Vobora walked right up to him and asked, “when’s the last time you worked out?” Mills pointed out the obvious, “I don’t have arms and legs.” But Vobora insisted, “Why does that matter?” He invited Mills to work out with him at his gym, free of charge. Mills said yes to the challenge.
Mills would train at the same time as the other elite athletes at the gym. The light bulb moment came for Vobora when, one day, he watched Mills doing 100-pound sled pulls on the turf. He would turn then, and watch his NFL players training, thinking to himself, “Oh, does your pinky toe hurt? That’s a shame, I wish I had toes.” Having Mills around soon affected everyone. It was like “the collective group all had a level and a gear beyond their known capacity,” Vobora recalls. “What I watched,” he said, “was a transformation of all people. It was the genesis of me starting ATF – the Adaptive Training Foundation.”
Since its inception in 2014, the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF) has provided its services to adaptive athletes free of charge, offering an intensive nine-week program as well as weekly workouts. ATF provides adaptive athletes a place they can “feel safe to challenge themselves, to push further, and have a group to belong to.”
For another example of how we can support each other through sports and movement, consider the story of Derek Redmond at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. Redmond, a top British runner, was favored to medal in the 400-meter race. But Redmond won no medals that year and did not advance past the semi-finals. Yet his story continues to be recounted years later.
All was well at the start of the semi-finals. Redmond was in good form. 200 meters into the race, however, Redmond felt a searing pain in his leg, causing him to stop and hobble. He collapsed onto the track in pain. It turned out that the pain Redmond felt was his hamstring snapping, detaching itself from the bone. Crying in pain but determined to finish, he stumbled and hopped along, the only remaining racer left.
Meanwhile, in the crowd, a middle-aged man started making his way down to the track. Security tried to stop him, but the man jumped onto the track and joined Redmond. In pain and not looking in the man’s direction, Redmond tried to push him away, thinking he was a race official trying to stop him. “Derek, it’s me,” the man said. Redmond looked up to see his father, standing next to him.
Redmond’s father placed his arm around his son, comforting him. He urged Redmond to stop, “you haven’t got nothing to prove.” But Redmond said no, “I want to finish.” Arm in arm, the pair began making their way down the track. The crowd, now up on its feet, cheered and clapped. Together, father and son finished the last 100 meters to a standing ovation.
To this day, video renditions of this moment circle throughout the internet. This 2010 version alone has been viewed more than 21 million times. It goes to show how at the end of the day, we may not remember who won the race, but we do remember the connections made along the way. As Maya Angelou famously said, “people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
To sum up, we have talked about loneliness as a detriment to health. We went over how relationships support us both emotionally and physically, and how working out with others fosters community and belonging. Using Dr. Waldinger’s words, we can summarize by saying, “it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship… it’s the quality of your close relationships that matter.” The good life, it seems, “is built with good relationships.”
- Take the next three minutes and watch this video of Derek Redmond at the 1992 Olympics.
Soak it in, allow the moment to move you.
- Go exercise with others. If that’s not possible today, schedule something for later.
- For further inspiration, watch an interview with David Vobora as he talks about how starting the Adaptive Training Foundation changed him and those around him. Or listen to his documentary about ATF.
Let’s not complicate things. Call up a friend and have them decide what to do. It could be a walk, a WOD, or anything in between.
The objective is doing movements with someone else.