Dr. Michaela Hynie studies social inclusion among new immigrants and seniors. The associate professor in the Faculty of Health at Toronto’s York University is well aware of how mental health issues, a lack of access to transportation, language barriers and mobility issues can stand between people and their access to the social groups they need. And she’s seen the fallout these can cause.

“Various people can find themselves [socially isolated]. But some circumstances can make people more vulnerable than others,” she says. “Things like having a limited knowledge of English or French can be isolating. People who have a lot of responsibility for providing care to other people in their household — that makes you less able to leave the house. And there are challenges around transportation. If you don’t have access to a car in areas without good public transportation, you can’t get out to meet with people.”

So Hynie was buoyed by the results of a recent program by the Canadian Mental Health Association called Minding Our Bodies. The series of projects promoted healthy eating and exercise for people as a way of improving mental health.

“Yes, it was important to get some exercise and learn how to cook but it was the social network that was built around these activities that was the best outcome for them,” says Hynie. “It made them feel better.”

The participants, many of whom suffered from depression or conditions like schizophrenia, hadn’t just cooked and exercised. They had also benefited from making friends.

Benefits of social networks

Being sociable is good for you. It can reduce anxiety and depression and provide a lifeline when life gets tough.

But its benefits go beyond psychological ones. According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging, social relationships may be associated with lower levels of inflammation in the body, which can lead to diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Being sociable can also lower blood pressure. And it can lower the risk of morbidity and mortality.

“It lowers blood pressure, leads to better immune system function and better sleep,” says Dr. Verena Menec, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

What’s also interesting is that when it comes to health benefits, not all social relationships are the same. A 2010 study from the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour found that the quality of these networks matters — and can influence behaviour.

“You’d think a person with a spouse really would be better off,” says Menec. But if the relationship with the spouse is not that good, the benefits are fewer, she says.

Menec says that 1 or 2 solid friendships — people who offer a hug and listen to your problems – can be enough for some people. But for most people, more is better. Having family members, friends and acquaintances who offer different social experiences — support, laughter, a sense of fun or caregiving — can meet a person’s social needs on many levels.

“You can gain different benefits from different people,” she says.

Keep your social networks alive

The worst thing people can do is socially isolate themselves and fall out of touch with old friends and acquaintances, says Menec. This can happen as people get older, or are faced with a chronic illness.

She says many men in heterosexual relationships tend to have small social networks. Some may really only have their wives. In their older years, they can be left with few social contacts, especially if they are widowed. “Men don’t maintain friendships as much as women do,” says Menec. “If the wife dies, the man is lost. It’s hard to start making contacts then.”

Hynie suggests that if older people feel discouraged from joining social groups, family members can help them overcome common barriers. They can encourage them, drive them, or arrange with local organizations to provide affordable courses, workshops, exercise programs or clubs. Alternatively, transportation services such as Wheel Trans or those provided via the Red Cross or CARP (formerly the Canadian Association for Retired Persons), can help get seniors to these programs.

Community outreach programs can help individuals who are new to Canada to build new networks, by socializing with people with shared interests and skills, and offering integration strategies such as language courses and training.

Hynie also suggests volunteering as an excellent way to meet people and feel a sense of purpose. “Volunteering has been shown to be very beneficial,” she says. “It provides meaningful ways of connecting to others, which makes people feel better about themselves.”

“Strengthening social networks is one of the most important things we can do,” says Hynie.

Menec agrees: “Cultivate your friends.”