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In a time where the health and fitness industry is shifting to a more holistic approach and prioritizing well-being, you can use this study’s finding to show how socialization has a powerful influence on health.

“Virtual offerings will never replace in-person programs.”

“People will return to gyms for the social aspects.”

“Humans crave connection.”

Phrases like this have been said over and over as the industry has navigated the pandemic. Owners and operators have preached humans need to interact with one another, but do we really know why?

According to Psychology Today, humans — because of necessity —evolved into social beings. Dependence and cooperation with each other has enhanced our ability to survive under harsh environmental circumstances. While survival threats have lessened over time, people continue to have a need to affiliate with others.

While industry leaders are correct — humans do crave connection — they often don’t realize socialization has a powerful influence on our health. While that’s an easy statement to make, there is actual scientific data that proves it.

In 1938, scientists began tracking the health of two groups of men — 268 sophomores at Harvard University and 456 ages 11 to 16 from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods — beginning the start of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. In the midst of the Great Depression, they hoped the longitudinal study would reveal clues to leading healthy and happy lives.

Researchers learned about the participant in different ways:

  • Questionnaires: Every two years, both groups complete questionnaires asking about their physical and mental health, marital quality, career or retirement enjoyment and many other aspects of their lives.
  • Health Information: Every five years, health information is collected from the men and their physicians to assess their physical health.
  • Interviews: Many of the men from both groups have been interviewed at different intervals over the years to document more in-depth information about their relationships, their careers and their adjustment to aging.

Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of this study, said in his TEDTalk about the study, research studies of this magnitude are extremely rare due to a multitude of factor such as participants dropping out, researchers dying or lack of funding. But the Harvard Study of Adult Development survived. In 2015, 60 of the original 724 men were still alive and actively participating in the study. In the same year, researchers opened the study up to more than 2,000 children of the original participants.

As the participants aged from teenagers to men in their eighties, they all went into different walks of life. Some became factory workers, doctors, lawyers and bricklayers. There was even one President of the United States — John F. Kennedy. Waldinger said, over time, some developed alcoholism, some climbed corporate ladders all the way to the top, and some came crashing down in the opposite direction.

While the study itself is impressive, you may be thinking what does this have to do with socialization?

After 75-plus years and thousands of pages of research, one clear message has been discovered — good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

 In his talk, Waldinger said there are three significant lessons from the study:

  1. Loneliness kills. At any given time, one in five Americans report they’re lonely. Isolation is toxic. There are greater physical declines in lonely people, and brain functioning can decline earlier.
  2. It’s the quality of our relationships that matter. “Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective,” said Waldinger in his talk. “Once we had followed our men all the way into their eighties, we wanted to look back at them at midlife to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. When we gathered everything, we knew about them at age 50 it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicated how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. Those who were the most satisfied in their relationship at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
  3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains. “It turns out being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your eighties is protective,” explained Waldinger. “The people who are in relationship where they feel they can count on the other person in times of need those people’s memories stay sharper longer.”

Lastly, Waldinger said over and over the 75 years, the study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, friends and community.

So, what does this mean for your organization?

In a time where the health and fitness industry is shifting to a more holistic approach and prioritizing well-being, you can use this study’s finding as an advantage. Host a social event at your facility so members can meet new friends, send the TEDTalk out to your members in your next email or even host a “Bring a Buddy Day” so members can work out with those they are closest with.

Knowing what you do now about the study, you can also take a look at yourself. How are your relationships? Do you have people in your corner you can rely on? Try replacing screen time with a night out with friends. Take a vacation day and spend time with your family.

The Harvard study set out to find what leads to a healthy and happy life. We have the answers. How will you apply it to your life now?

Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is the assistant editor of Community Rec Magazine. She can be reached at taylor@peakemedia.com.

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