After 18 months of relative isolation, rebuilding social connections is vital for you and your fitness clients. Enhancing social connectedness can significantly improve quality of life, boost health and well-being, elevate mood and happiness, increase longevity, and even enhance cognitive and physical performance (Denworth 2020). Socialization is important at any time, but the need today is greater than ever. Fortunately, your fitness sessions can help to meet the demand!

Discover more about socialization’s advantages and how you can make them more available to your clients.

Social Connections and Neuroplasticity

Social neuroscience researchers are finding that increased connectedness benefits us, partly, by stimulating neuroplasticity, the rewiring of our brain cells. Greater neuroplasticity improves cognitive and physical performance as well as overall health (Gupta 2007; Levintin 2020).

In a nutshell, here’s how it works: Socializing activates neurotransmitter substances that allow brain cells to communicate with each other, fostering greater neuroplasticity. This effect triggers the release of hormones into the bloodstream, and they, in turn, activate cells throughout the body (Denworth 2020). Learning something challenging and new has a similar effect.

Just as brain neuroplasticity ultimately enhances physical well-being, so the reverse is true: Physical exercise improves brain function. This synergistic body-mind connection operates throughout our lives.

For more on neuroplasticity, see “Socializing, Learning and Exercise Benefit the Brain,” below.

See also: The Power of Connection in the Age of Social Distancing

The Benefits of Social Connections

People connecting during a fitness class

Providing clients with opportunities for social connections can lessen some negative health effects.

Chronic Diseases

Like physically inactive people, those less socially connected are two to three times more likely to develop chronic diseases and die prematurely (Byrne & Syme 1979; McGonigal 2007). Social connectedness helps protect against heart attack and stroke, strengthens the immune system, and supports long-term health (Denworth 2020; Renken 2020). Simply having another person to socialize with effectively reduces heart rate, blood pressure and stress-related hormones (Holt-Lunstadt, Robles & Sbarra 2017).

The effects of chronic disease can begin as much as 10–20 years before symptoms appear (Beason–Held et al. 2013). By providing clients and group participants with opportunities to connect socially—and, of course, to exercise!—fitness professionals can lessen these effects.

Brain Health and Mental Well-Being

Reviewing the neuroscience research, Mintzer and colleagues (2019) found that greater social connectedness enlarges hippocampal brain volume, improving memory and overall brain health. Loneliness, they discovered, can exasperate social and mental problems. In one study, Mintzer noted that individuals with stronger social connections possessed better brain health than those in a control group.

Cognitive Decline and Dementia

Social connectedness can reduce the risk of cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Researchers have found that those with greater social connectedness had greater brain volume (which declines with age) than those with fewer social connections (Bickart et al 2011; Powell et al 2012). Additionally, it has been found that adhering to healthy lifestyle choices, including socialization, across the life span can prevent more than 30% of cases of dementia (Livingston et al. 2017).

Stress

Stress can decrease significantly with greater socialization, says neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta (Gupta & Loberg 2021). Stressful situations increase the production of cortisol, which is linked to cognitive impairment and decreased hippocampal volume (Mintzer et al. 2019). Cortisol breaks down muscle protein to make sugar available to muscles for energy, fueling the fight-or-flight response. Unalleviated stress leads to muscle deterioration and loss of muscle mass. Stress has also been found to weaken the immune system and shorten telomeres, the protective molecular substances on the ends of our chromosomes (Chopra & Tanzi 2015).

Mood and Happiness

Greater socialization can ease depression and has been shown to improve mood and increase happiness (Begley 2007; Gupta & Loberg 2021). As we age, social connections often dwindle, increasing loneliness and cognitive decline (Mintzer et al. 2019).

Telomeres and Mitochondria

Enhancing social connectedness can lengthen telomeres, ensuring that they continue to function effectively. During cell division, healthy telomeres prevent fraying—they act like “aglets,” the plastic caps on the ends of shoelaces. After numerous cell divisions, though, telomeres may become too short to protect our chromosomes, allowing cells to wither and die. Cellular death can increase the chances for chronic disease to develop, reducing life expectancy (Mitteldorf & Sagan 2016).

Mitochondria, the power plants in our cells, provide energy for working muscles. These energy generators can be damaged by stress and by free radicals associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices. Mitochondria multiply and become more robust with exercise, but they decline with age in sedentary people. When mitochondria die, cells die, too. Mitochondria benefit not only from exercise but from other epigenetic factors like socialization, which in turn boost cellular health.

Longevity

With greater social connectedness comes increased longevity (Denworth 2020). Berkman & Syme (1979) found that socially isolated people were more than twice as likely to die over a 9-year period as those who were more connected.

Unfortunately, loneliness is increasingly prevalent among the elderly—and has been acutely so during the pandemic. The health risks of loneliness can be as deadly as those from cigarette smoking (Denworth 2020) You can help by offering senior fitness classes with built-in chances for people to connect with one another (see “Fostering Social Connection Among Your Clients,” below).

Physical Performance

The human brain evolved over time to orchestrate physical activity. Consequently, improvements in cognitive function lead to enhancements in physical performance. Moreover, as noted previously, the benefits flow in both directions: Improving physical performance likewise enhances brain function.

Greater socialization throughout a lifetime facilitates the bidirectional influences of mind-body connection (Grafton 2020).

See also: Cycling Class Connection

Healthy Mind, Healthy Body

Our brains love socializing, and as human beings we benefit both cognitively and physically from exercising with others. Fitness professionals can therefore be of singular service, offering leadership for client-centered health and wellness programs that enhance the rewards of social connection while keeping our bodies vital and strong.