Neighborhood NewsLifestyle & Wellness

The importance of community 

By Joel Giffin, DO 

West End Healthline

I love this warmer weather! My favorite part about this time of year is the ability to re-engage with people out in the world. Every spring and summer, I talk to neighbors that I haven’t seen since the start of winter. I often reconnect with friends and family for cookouts, outdoor sporting events, or dinners on patios. I have the chance to explore new parks and trails with my wife, which is a way that we like to connect and spend quality time together. 

For some people, social isolation comes during the winter –– and the flipside of that, connection can come in the spring – and this often affects my patients. Young and older individuals that thrive usually have hobbies, interests, and ways to connect with the larger world. These patients tend to be more able to follow through on their treatment plans, better able to make positive changes to their health and to cope with significant life events. Conversely, I also see patients of all types and ages that are isolated, and this can have a negative impact on their mental and physical health. Often those patients are more stuck in their ways, less likely to reach out for advice, or less able to take that advice and make changes to improve their health. 

Researchers have demonstrated that social connection significantly impacts health. Certain parts of the world have much longer lifespans than average, with many people reaching 100 years old and averaging an extra 10 years of life compared to other parts of their same country. These places are called “Blue Zones” and one common feature among them is having a sense of connection to your community and a purpose or role in that community. This sense of community can be met as an elder that others ask for advice, or as a caregiver for young children, or as someone who maintains cooking or cultural traditions. 

While St.Saint Paul may not be a Blue Zone, the importance of community holds true here. For example, I have a patient who is paralyzed from the neck down due to an injury, but he has a robust network of friends, family, and medical professionals that he interacts with. He gets out of his house to go to family birthday parties, or to church. Similarly, I have patients who cannot move much due to arthritis or weakness, but they can still interact with their online communities of friends and family, share stories, and give advice. I have patients who are isolated from drug and alcohol addiction, but after treatment they re-integrate into society and can truly thrive. Speaking from personal experience, I find community and connection in being able to talk to my coworkers about topics not related to our job; whether it is getting updates on their kids’ activities, or talking about sports, hearing new recipes, or sharing some lighthearted office gossip! 

In this time of reconnection as we emerge from our hibernation, I will encourage my patients, and all of you reading this, to take some steps to build up the community around you. Consider some of the following ways to do so: 

  • Send a simple text, DM, or letter to a friend that you have been meaning to say hi to 
  • Go on a walk around your neighborhood and wave or say hi to someone 
  • Talk to a coworker about a topic not related to work 
  • Find a new park that you haven’t been to before and go for a little walk 
  • Find a spot to sit in public and observe the world around you, even if you aren’t interacting with anybody 

Take a step towards building a connection with another person this month. Now is a great time to get outside and talk to friends and neighbors. Over time you will find that your health will benefit in ways you may not have thought possible. Build a new connection this summer! 

Dr. Giffin is a family physician at Allina Health United Family Physicians, 233 Grand Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55102, phone 651-241-5200 

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