Positive relationships can be just as important as nutrition and physical activity to our health and well-being. And, even though relationships with others may evolve over time, maintaining a strong social network as we age can contribute to a longer, healthier life.

A social network is simply a group people who are close to you. This network — which can be made up of made up of friends, family, coworkers, neighbors and others — is how we give and receive both instrumental and emotional support.

Instrumental support is the tangible help we give or receive through things like transportation for a neighbor or child care for friends or family. Emotional support is intended to lift our spirits, relieve sadness, encourage us toward goals or help with problem -solving.

Think of your networks and relationships as a convoy traveling down the road of life with you. Some of our relationships are in it for the long haul. Others use the on-or of- ramps, and some take different roads entirely. Relationships in your convoy change over time, but all provide support and contribute to your well-being along the way.

As we age, the road can sometimes feel lonely — caring for children or aging parents can make it challenging to maintain friendships. This is normal and means you have to be more intentional about establishing and maintaining relationships, which isn’t easy. The challenge to keep connected has been more difficult this past year due to COVID-19. In addition to busy lives, caring for family and work or other life responsibilities, we often don’t make time to connect with someone.

If you’re looking to expand your social network, here are some ideas:

Do an inventory of who is already in your social network — are there people who you have already met you could connect with?

Make the effort to reach out. During the COVID-19 pandemic, make a phone call or set up a virtual meeting to develop a new connection.

Be available — relationships take time. In addition to helping provide necessary support, establishing and maintaining relationships is also good for your health. Positive relationships can boost your happiness and reduce stress, improve your confidence and help you cope with traumatic life events.

Adults with a strong social network have reduced risk of depression, lower blood pressure and tend to maintain a more healthy body mass index. Building new friendships and investing time in maintaining relationships can help on the highway of life and the path to better health.

Bonnie Betts, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Waseca.

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