Social engagement can help with sleep

Fitness and friends

Dear Doctors: I had been spending a lot of time alone, so I made a point of joining friends at a museum, going on a group hike and volunteering at a book sale. I had been struggling with poor sleep but on each of those nights I slept really well. Could socializing have made a difference?

Dear Reader: A growing body of research links having a robust social life with improved physical and mental health. It turns out that, as you have found in your own efforts to get out and about, it may help you sleep better, too. Where someone goes or what they do when they get there doesn't appear to matter. What counts are the many mental, physical and emotional tasks they wind up performing over the course of the outing. That includes the planning involved in conceiving and arranging the outing, getting dressed and otherwise preparing to leave the house, making the physical journey from home to the destination, and navigating the many rhythms and currents of the event itself.

It is interesting to note that novelty also appears to play a role. A typical workweek, which often involves familiar actions repeated in the same place and under the same conditions, can be mentally and physically taxing. And yet high-quality sleep may still be elusive. But participating in something that is unfamiliar, unexpected or unpredictable appears to engage and even tire us out not only mentally but physically, as well.

A number of studies have looked into the potential link between social engagement and improved sleep. One followed 3,200 adults over the age of 60. Those who frequently participated in group hobbies, community-based organizations and team sports were found to have a better quality of sleep than those who did not. In another study, interviews with 175 healthy adults between the ages of 44 and 75 found that having meaningful social connections, including friendships and family relationships, correlated with better sleep.

In your letter you mention sleeping better after joining friends for a hike. That lines up with numerous studies that have linked the simple act of spending time in the natural world with feelings of well-being, which can lead to improved sleep. Volunteering has also repeatedly been shown to confer both physical and mental health benefits on those who regularly take part. All of this is important because unfortunately, as we have discussed before, poor sleep is a widespread and growing problem in our modern world. Chronic poor sleep is linked to a higher risk of developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity; high blood pressure; and certain types of cancers. Cognition and mental health can be adversely affected as well.

Being sedentary, being stressed and the near-constant exposure to artificial light have been identified as contributing factors to sleep problems. Aging plays a roll, too. As people grow older, physiological changes begin to adversely affect both sleep quality and sleep duration. This makes the idea that robust and diverse social engagement can help us to sleep better all the more important.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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