Social fitness doesn’t usually come up first in conversations about health, wellness, and performance. Of course, eating right, working out regularly, getting enough sleep, and managing your stress are important. Yet the quality of your relationships with others—such as your partner, family, friends, coworkers, and other Military Service Members—can impact multiple areas of your health.
When your relationships are healthy, you’re likely to feel supported, accepted, and able to cope with stressors in other areas of your life. People with strong relationships tend to sleep better and rebound from injury, illness, and trauma more quickly. In fact, when you have close relationships with friends and family, you’re more likely to live longer. Your social network also can help you meet your fitness and nutrition goals by supporting you and keeping you accountable.
But if your relationships aren’t going so well, you’re more likely to be distracted and find it hard to focus on work. You might feel lonely too. Loneliness is linked with depression, poor heart health, weakened immune system, and sleep problems. And tense, high-conflict or overly demanding relationships can cancel out the positive effects of having social connections at all.
So what can you do to make sure your interactions with friends, family, and your unit work for you rather than against you?
- Start with you. When it comes to your relationships, you’re at least half of the equation. It’s crucial to be able to recognize how and what you contribute to any positive or negative exchanges. Practice managing your feelings so you can react and interact with others deliberately and thoughtfully, rather than in unhelpful, impulsive, or uncontrolled ways.
- Put in the time (and have fun doing it)! With demanding and irregular schedules, it’s not always easy to spend quality time with friends and loved ones. But it’s essential to make family time (and time for friends) a priority to keep your relationships strong. Even if you can only play a game with your kids once a week or get together with friends once a month, try to fit it into your routine. And remember to make it fun! In fact, try and have some fun in all your social and professional relationships. Doing so can help build trust and cohesion.
- Keep it real. Strive to be authentic and trustworthy. If you’re in a leadership role, being transparent and honest with your team can help improve teammates’ performance and their level of engagement. At home, building trust in your close relationships allows everyone to be more vulnerable, which builds solid bonds.
- Show you’re listening. Two of the most important communication skills to reduce conflict and maintain healthy relationships are listening and showing empathy. When you empathize with people, you tune in to how they feel and validate their experiences, without necessarily agreeing. Good listeners repeat back what they hear and ask questions. Mind your body language too: Put your phone away, make eye contact, don’t cross your arms, etc.
- Be the excitement magnifier. It can be easy to forget that relationships are built during the good times, not just by being there in tough times. The way you react when others share good news with you can either strengthen or damage your relationships. When a friend, coworker, or family member shares good news, try to consciously share in the excitement and help him or her leave the conversation as, or even more, thrilled. Remember to show you’re interested, avoid focusing on problems, and resist comparing your experiences to theirs.
- When it breaks, fix it. Relationships aren’t perfect, so there will be times when problems arise, and that’s okay. Focus on making it through conflicts without hurting your relationship, and work on fixing things when you both have calmed down. For example, if things get heated with your partner, take a break from the conversation. When tempers have cooled, make the effort to discuss what happened and repair the damage. Focus on accountability, validation, and making an effective apology.
Try these tips to keep your social support network strong. They will help you stay emotionally, mentally, and physically fit, so you can perform at your best.