Community is good for your health—but only if it’s good community.

Recently I had the privilege of teaching a wonderful group of people, all of whom had a shared goal of improving their physical capacities in strength and movement—both for themselves and for their students and clients. It’s always a pleasure to meet people that I’ve interacted with online but never in person. The connection we’ve made is further strengthened through training and moving together in person.

Truly, finding like-minded people and working together toward mutual goals creates an energy that we can’t generate alone. And, as it turns out, we are actually harming ourselves if our normal environment is isolation.

The amazing time I had with this group is in direct contrast to an article I had read a few months ago where the author was tasked by his editor to write on the “epidemic of loneliness” (as described by the U.S. Surgeon General). The writer was mortified when he realized he was a prime example that “middle-aged men have no friends.”

This lack of social engagement has proven to have drastic health consequences. Significant increases in cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and a reduced life expectancy are all associated with seclusion. There is a seven-decades-long study whose overwhelming data analyses were dramatically summed up by its director as:

“Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”

Very powerful words from an objective scientist, stressing just how important social connections are for a long and healthy life.

Make and maintain meaningful social connections

Who do you spend the most time with?

Family, friends and co-workers all combine as a constant in our lives and so, whether we realize it or not, they affect everything we do. As the saying goes, humans are social animals. We naturally seek friendships and relationships to engage with other people, for our own sake and for theirs. Even those who are estranged from their families and loved ones still feel a tug toward that most ancient of bonds.

No matter how independent we see ourselves, we are still connected to these social relationships and are affected by those who mean the most to us. And, as research clearly shows, good relationships can mean the difference between good and poor health.

Finding like-minded people is important for cultivating quality relationships. And in the case of physical fitness, we often see that the shared goals of improving health and our bodies’ performance bring people closer together.

Changing and transforming ourselves requires motivation, good instruction and consistent, hard work. And experiencing all of these things with regular training partners seems to automatically bring a closeness. Working together toward shared goals does that. Whether it’s training for a marathon or simply trying to build a stronger, more capable body, we form a bond with those sharing our experiences.

Listen to champion athletes, successful entrepreneurs or anyone accepting an award, and if they are at all truthful, they’ll tell you how vital other people were in their achievements. An encouraging voice calling you on the phone on an extraordinarily crappy day can make the difference between falling backward and moving forward.

So, look at what’s important to you and find ways to build meaningful connections with others working toward those same goals. You’ll find that the process and experience are far more enjoyable, and you’ll form bonds that are hard to mimic in other ways.

Navigate negative relationships with grace

Negativity, especially when it comes from the people closest to you, drains you and siphons away energy that could be used toward your goals. We obviously need our relationships, and pessimism and naysaying may not wholly deter you from improving, but it makes it that much harder to keep on track and do what you need to do.

But cutting negative people out of your life isn’t a simple thing, especially with regard to family. After all, we can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our family. Remember that, as hard as it is to work on improving yourself, it’s also hard for the people around you to acclimate to the “new you.” They’re used to certain behaviors from you, and we are all conditioned to view our friends and family in a particular way.

Any departure from that view is going to meet resistance, even if unconscious and unintentional.

So, I’d caution you to be wary of advice to cut ties with close connections at the first sign of negativity. After all, people are not perfect, and having close relationships is essential to your health.

However, there’s a big difference between a family member or close friend who is initially resistant to positive changes within you, and those relationships that are negative in the long term. Less-than-supportive people may continue to be passive-aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive!) for a long while, and you’ll know if you need to let go of some of these people relatively quickly.

The time and effort of dealing with them will sap your energy and you’ll feel worn out. Follow your instincts and remove yourself from those “energy vampires.”

Compare how you feel and the time spent in these negative relationships with the uplifting and positive interactions you have with people who build each other up. It’s not only fun but it’s productive! You are working together to grow and thrive and win together.

We ended our seminar weekend with an exhilarating game of “animal locomotion tag” and the sight of so many people having fun while working hard put a smile on my face for hours!

Be open to connections

You may find you “luck” into a good environment, whether it’s a gym or a circle of friends, or even a good online community. But it’s likely less about “luck” and more a combination of vetting the right people to be with, and a concerted effort to connect with people over shared values. Sometimes you can make your own luck, and you can certainly make a better environment by filling it with people who get along.

It simply makes sense to connect with compatible people, especially people with values that you support and who are seeking positive change.

If you look at your life right now and realize you don’t have many close connections, you may need to open yourself up to forming bonds with people, and actively seek out and build a support system for yourself. It’s crucial both for self-development and for your health.

We can’t underestimate the value of social support in every aspect of our lives, especially when it comes to personal transformation. It can be hard enough to get ourselves motivated for change, and adding the stress of a negative environment can stop us right in our tracks.

The path to good health and success has to involve more than just ourselves.

Align yourself with good people as much as possible, minimize your interaction with negative nellies and open yourself to help and support.

Read how movement and music in a group fitness setting bring us closer together, and teach us empathy.

Photo credit: jacoblund/Thinkstock