Friends with Benefits: How Pals Keep You Healthy

It's often tempting to vegetate at home in front of the TV or computer screen. But consider what doctors say is key to staying happy and healthy: socializing.

Research shows that not staying connected poses similar risks to your health as high blood pressure, obesity and even smoking. As staggering as that is, a trend toward smaller social networks and fewer close confidants is growing.

"More Americans in the last 20 years say that they have fewer close friends or people in their lives with whom they can discuss important matters," says Duke University sociologist Lynn Smith-Lovin. "What ties to a close-knit group of people does is create a safety net."

Doctors agree, and say that a good chat or a regular girls' or guys' night out can do even more.

"Feeling cared for and supported within a social network is particularly important for women in fostering self-care," says Todd Jackson, PhD, author of a 2006 study linking high levels of social support and community involvement with healthier diet, exercise and sleep habits, among other positive effects.

Think of it as a new kind of "friends with benefits" -- health benefits. Here's how the buddy system works to bring about a happier, healthier you:

Motivation: You know how far just a tiny push can go when buying a new handbag or deciding to pursue that dream job. Having a cheerleader on hand when your workout regimen seems next to impossible is a proven strategy for maintaining a healthy exercise routine. In fact, participants in a 2005 New England study who exercised with a partner lost significantly more weight than those who did it alone. Their weight loss after the first six months: at least 10 percent, for both partners.

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