When you think of exercises that can keep you young and extend your long-term health, most people think of physical activities. But new research shows that the best exercise is not what you think.
The latest science suggests the best way to improve long-term health isn’t physical, it’s social. In short, what researchers found is that the best form of exercise is something we can summarize as “connection.”
Strengthening relationship ties by exercising what experts call “social fitness” is the most influential brain and body hack. While many social activities involve groups and the building of relationships, dancing is inherently all about building relationships, so it’s a perfect fit for this new research.
Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that “Not exercising your social fitness is hazardous to your health.”
Waldinger directs the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted. According to the psychiatrist, who recently summed up eighty-plus years of data in his book The Good Life (January 2023, Simon & Schuster), the formula for health and happiness hinges on positive relationships.
According to Waldinger, the researchers found that “If you regularly feel isolated and lonely, it can be as dangerous as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese.”
How do you exercise social fitness? There’s no clear roadmap for building or maintaining a solid social life.
In 1938, during the Great Depression, researchers rounded up 268 Harvard sophomores to better understand how early psychosocial and biological factors influence life outcomes. For over eighty years, a team—now led by Waldinger—has tracked the students and their families, following them through marriages, careers, births, diseases, and deaths. In the 1970s, 456 Boston inner-city residents who were part of another study focused on juvenile delinquency and resilience were incorporated into the same Harvard study.
Every two years, the researchers check in with participants, asking questions on topics like mood and life satisfaction. Every five years, they take physiological measurements including brain scans and blood work. As of 2023, the ongoing study is still tracking all living members of the original participant set and over 500 members of their offspring. The trove of data provides an unparalleled window into what makes up a good life.
When Waldinger first joined the study, he felt that conventional measures of success like achievement, status, and awards were only distractions on the path to real happiness. As he delved deeper in the data, hundreds of subjects confirmed this suspicion. Across the study, neither wealth nor social class were correlated with happiness levels or longevity. Positive relationships, on the other hand, were consistently linked to happier, longer lives.
Another research review from 2010, including over 300,000 participants, indicates that people with strong social ties are 50 percent more likely to survive over a given period than those with weak ties. Loneliness and social isolation are associated with immune dysfunction and may even spike the risk of heart attack or stroke by an estimated 30 percent. To help prevent these negative health outcomes, it’s essential to foster social fitness.
Relationships front and center
When the first Harvard study subjects were in their 80s, Waldinger and his team asked them to look back on their lives and share what they were proudest of. Nearly everyone talked about relationships.
“Almost all said: I was a good parent or a good mentor. I had a good marriage or I was a good friend,” Waldinger recalls. “Almost nobody said: I made a lot of money, I won these awards, or I got to be the chief executive of my organization.”
Waldinger says that real loneliness is not having someone available that you can call on, the sense that nobody has your back. “The costs of that are huge. Eventually that breaks down our health.”
No wonder the two years we were isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic took such a toll on mental health.
“When you lose emotional and social fitness, you lose everything,” says Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist, co-founder of Coa, a gym for mental health, and expert on emotional fitness who is not involved in the Harvard Study. “Everything in life is going to feel better if you feel connected to other people to get through the tough things and enjoy the good things.”
Anhalt says people should treat social fitness proactively. People should regularly nurture their social life, which elevates mental well-being by default.
Dance, especially ballroom dancing, is a great avenue for building the relationships and routine that creates a foundation for social fitness.
Get out among people. Make new friends. Dance with strangers. And here’s a bonus tip from Anhalt: Do “emotional push-ups.” These include striking up conversations with strangers, saying thank you, or accepting compliments without deflection. Start small—Practice one or two emotional push-ups weekly. While there’s no shortcut to social fitness, regularly flexing your social muscles will add up to stronger relationships over time.