What Proper Nutrition, Mobilizing, and Cheering on Athletes Doing the CrossFit Open Have in Common

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By Dr. Allison Belger

We are now in the second week of the CrossFit Open 2014.  In addition to being the first step in the qualification process for the international CrossFit Games, this is a huge community event, connecting athletes within and among gyms around the globe via fitness efforts, cheering, and a little shared suffering to boot.

In 2012, I wrote a book called The Power of Community, which documents, among other things, the importance of meaningful social connections for our psychological and physical health.  The topic of community and the benefits of social interaction on our overall wellbeing have been widely discussed in both scientific literature and popular culture. Recently, Oprah started a campaign called “Just Say Hello,” which is meant to encourage people to connect with others, with as easy and simple an act as making eye contact and saying hello.

Oprah’s website provides some interesting information about both the importance of human connection in the prevention of loneliness, and the harmful effects of social isolation and lack of friendships.  While we often associate sadness and other emotional melancholy with being lonely, what we may not realize is that loneliness also has a powerful and direct negative impact on our physical health.  If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, my book discusses it in detail, and there’s also an easily digestible article on Oprah’s site By Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

One of the more fascinating findings Dr. Gupta highlights is that social isolation and loneliness actually register in our brains in the same way as physical pain.  With a historical overview, Dr. Gupta explains, From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense; our prehistoric ancestors relied on social groups not just for companionship, but for survival. Staying close to the tribe brought access to shelter, food, and protection. Separation from the group, on the other hand, meant danger. Today when we feel left out, our bodies may sense a threat to survival, and some of the same pain signals that would engage if we were in real physical danger are flipped on.

Along these lines, last year I had posted a link to a psychology journal article, which documented the perception of social isolation as physical pain. It’s fascinating stuff about how an emotional experience can register in our brains as something physical.

For those of us who are concerned about our health and wellness and are doing what we can to keep our physical selves healthy, Oprah’s campaign is a good reminder that we must also attend to our social lives and emotional wellbeing. In our efforts to keep our bodies strong and fit, we of course need to focus on our training, our nutrition, our lifestyle choices, our efforts at mobility–all of it.  But we need to pay as much attention to ourselves as social beings, and in particular how we are connected to others.  As Dr. Kelly Starrett said when reviewing my book, we need to “create opportunities for people to matter to each other.”  The incentive is twofold: we will be emotionally more content and happy, and our physical health will be better, as well.

One of my favorite quotations comes from political scientist, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone.  After reviewing the vast landscape of literature on the topic, Putnam writes:

The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half (emphasis in original). If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

This week’s message, then, is to take advantage of opportunities to connect with others.  Following Oprah’s initiative, smile at a stranger — you just might make someone’s day and improve someone’s health.  Call old friends, make plans with people you enjoy, join a book club, volunteer for a local cause, find your own path for sharing experiences.  And remember, the CrossFit Open is a great way to bring people together. If you’re not competing, you can still show up, cheer, and make connections.  It just might be as good for your physical health as doing the workouts you’re watching!

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