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The secret to good health? Exercise and ‘satisfying’ relationships

Posted on the 22nd February 2023

Social networks and Exercise

Strong social networks and physical activity have been identified as key components in preventing long-term health conditions.

Enjoying satisfying relationships with partners, family, friends and work colleagues and exercising at least once every month could boost your physical and mental health in old age, two studies suggest.

Globally, people are living longer and every country in the world is experiencing growth in the size and proportion of older people in their population. The number of those aged 80 or older is set to triple between 2020 and 2050, to reach 426 million.

Now, two new research papers published in the British Medical Journal have shed light on what behaviors in middle age might help improve the chances of enjoying good health later in life.

The first study utilized data gathered from almost 8,000 women in Australia.

All were free from 11 common long-term conditions and were aged 45 to 50 when the study began in 1996. Every three years, they reported their satisfaction levels with their partners, family members, friends and work colleagues.

They were tracked for 20 years to see if they developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, osteoporosis, arthritis, cancer, depression or anxiety.

Those who reported the lowest level of satisfaction with their social relationships had double the risk of developing multiple conditions compared with those who reported the highest levels of satisfaction, the researchers found.

The results highlighted that satisfying relationships with partners, relatives, friends and colleagues are linked to a lower risk of accumulating multiple long-term conditions in old age.

The less satisfying these relationships are in your 40s and 50s, the greater the risk of having several illnesses later in life, the research suggests.

Mounting evidence indicates a link between strong social networks and good health and wellbeing in older age, but until now it’s not been known if these connections might lower the risk of multiple long-term conditions or multimorbidity.

A second study found that regular physical activity at any age is linked to better brain function in old age.

Additionally, maintaining an exercise routine throughout adulthood helps preserve mental acuity and memory and staves off conditions such as dementia.

Even taking up exercise in your 60s for improving cognitive function is better than doing nothing at all, suggests the research led by University College London and published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

The study examined data from 1,417 people about how much exercise they did over four decades. Surveys were carried out five times throughout adulthood, when people were aged 36, 43, 53, 60 to 64, and 69.

Cognitive tests, plus those looking at processing speed and memory, were carried out once people hit 69. Those who were physically active at least one to four times a month in all five separate surveys performed the best on the tests.

Related: Gut health – do Buddhist monks have the answer?

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