3 Ways Your BFFs Can Improve Your Health

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We give ourselves credit for plenty of things: nailing a project at work, making killer overnight oats, shaving our legs regularly (well, at least in warm weather). But there’s one thing women ought to take pride in more often, and that’s how much we rock at friendship. Whether single or married, 22 or 78, we know just how to cultivate, appreciate, and enjoy connections with our girls.

While the sexes may equally value friendship, we experience the bond on different levels. “Women tend to have more intimate friendships than men do,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and author of Best Friends Forever. A 2015 study of social media profile photos published in Plos One confirmed what many of us have noticed: Guys gravitate toward larger, looser groups of casual buddies, while women prefer fewer besties, forming deeper and more time-consuming friendships. The researchers noted that this pattern is also evident in chimpanzees, suggesting that our pal style “may long predate the evolution of our species.”

But make no mistake—nurture plays a role, says Shasta Nelson, CEO of the friendship-matching site GirlFriendCircles.com and author of Frientimacy. Girls are taught to be masters of positivity (think giving pep talks), consistency (making plans), and vulnerability (sharing emotions). “We live in a society that expects these skills of women,” points out Nelson, “so we’re more practiced at them.”

Not only are we amazing at friendship, but according to science, it’s good for us—both now and as we age. So next time you ditch your family for girls’ night out, tell them it’s medicinal. (Even though, sadly, insurance won’t reimburse you for the round of margaritas.)

RELATED: 21 Reasons You'll Live Longer Than Your Friends

1. Friends are preventive medicine

It’s more than just your pal bringing over soup when you’re sick: Having good friends can help protect your body from stress. In a series of studies conducted at the University of Virginia, people were faced with the threat of getting an electric shock either while solo or while holding a friend’s hand. MRI scans revealed that in those clinging to a pal, the brain regions that sense danger were significantly less active.

Our besties may even provide a buffer against cancer. In an assessment of 2,835 women with breast cancer in the Nurses’ Health Study, those with no close friends were four times as likely to die from the disease as the women with 10 or more close friends. Other research has shown that the more socially connected people are, the lower their blood pressure when they get older.

That well-being boost may translate to the ultimate payoff: a longer life. A meta-analysis of studies from Brigham Young University found that people with strong social relationships had a 50 percent greater chance of living longer than those with weaker ties. The researchers concluded that a lack of social interaction can pose as much of an early-death risk as smoking and alcoholism, and a higher risk than obesity and physical inactivity. There you go: yet more motivation to quit playing text tag and schedule that catch-up dinner.

RELATED: 10 Things to Say (and 10 Not to Say) to Someone With Depression

2. They protect your mood

Pals not only provide support, they can have Prozac-like powers, too. An English study revealed that people with depression doubled their chances of bouncing back if they had enough friends with “healthy mood.” Data from 4,739 people followed for 20 years in the renowned Framingham Heart Study demonstrated that those with positive peers were likely to become happy in the future. It pays to get out and have fun with a bunch of them, according to a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health: Women who have 10 or more friends to socialize with experience better psychological well-being in midlife than those who have fewer. There’s a reason Nelson refers to close friendships as “gyms for our souls.”

RELATED: Is There a Nice Way to Break Up With a Self-Involved Friend?

3. The right mates make you strong 

Not feeling your workout lately? Rope in a friend, ideally a really fit one. Doing physical activity with a companion who’s in top shape makes you go at it harder than if you exercised with a less in-shape one, per a study from Santa Clara University’s department of psychology. (Although your super-buff pal won’t reap added fitness benefits by working out with you, she will be racking up some serious karma points.)

It’s no wonder, then, that buddies are one another’s best weight watchers. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that when overweight people were grouped with friends or family as part of a weight-loss program, they lost 6 1⁄2 more pounds and shaved an extra 1 1⁄4 inches off their waists than those who just received info on diet and exercise. Why’s that? The study authors quote an African proverb: “If you wish to go fast, go alone. But if you wish to go far, go together.”

Health24.com | How to stop all your bad habits in their tracks

Picking up the right habits is in the difference between success and “why is that guy always late?” Kick the bad habits, right now, with this four-step guide.

1. Screen

Skipping gym to binge on series? Browsing instead of buckling down? We get it; your body is hardwired to find patterns of behaviour.

According to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 40% of our activities are repeated every day. But there’s a glitch in the matrix: instant gratification.

A quick jog will get the endorphins flowing, but the TV is hitting the same dopamine centres. Your body doesn’t know the difference, but you do.

Read more: Cardio sessions may literally make your brain bigger

The trick here: write it down, says Warren Munitz, founder of Integrative Life Coaching. Get specific: figure out how each habit is affecting your life, then keep the good and kick the bad.

2. Substitute

Breaking the pattern ain’t easy – trust us, we’ve all been there. But you don’t have to go cold turkey, says motivational speaker Shoni Khangala. Leave that level of brute force to real addictions. You can still watch your favourite series, just start seeing them as a reward instead of a ritual.

Put in the time at the gym and checked off all your chores? Great, now watch as much Game of Thrones as you want. It’ll be tough in the beginning; you’re training your brain to ignore cravings.

Read more: Is Game of Thrones making you fat?

But you need to start expecting more from yourself, says Enabled Life founder De Wet Mans – that’s when the real growth starts happening.

Still struggling? Khangala suggests a Pavlovian approach. Craving a burger? Hunker down for a set of push-ups. Over time you’ll begin to associate the trigger with the healthier option.

3. Squad up

Waging war on your bad habits shouldn’t be a lonely experience. Your mates are your brothers-in-arms, and chances are they’re struggling with the same sins. Khangala says enlisting your friends will make the process easier and faster.

Studies have shown that simply telling friends and family about your goals will help you stay focused and, more importantly, achieve them.

Read more: How to set weight-loss goals

“I’ve been on many teams throughout my athletic career,” writes James Clear in his book Transform Your Habits. “You know what happens when you have friends, teammates and coaches expecting you to be at practice? You show up.”

4. Steer clear

If you’re trying to quit smoking or drinking, you wouldn’t go to a bar, right? All our habits have triggers, and many triggers can be avoided, says Khangala.

For example, if you’re missing out on sleep because you’re browsing Instagram for hours before bed, your phone is the smoking gun.

Keep it charging in another room. You’ll be less likely to start browsing in bed if it involves crawling out from the covers. Same goes for sitting on Facebook when you’re on a tight deadline. Use a website blocker plugin to stonewall your temptations.

This article was originally published on www.mh.co.za

Image credit: iStock