I hope everyone had a safe and fun-filled Fourth. Independence Day is a time for family, friends and fireworks. It is time to maybe attend a public event, have a backyard barbecue or take a trip to the lake. As you look back at this holiday, I have an important health question for you: Did you have fun? The health benefits associated with good old-fashioned fun may be greater than you can imagine — as is our nation’s need for the medicine that having fun can provide.
We might put leisure activities somewhere down our “must-do” list, but we need to stop devaluing the importance of having fun. By its very nature, fun is stress-reducing. High levels of stress can inhibit the body’s ability to fight off infection and lead to a whole host of physical and mental problems. On the prescriptive side, having fun increases your serotonin level. This chemical enhances many of our most basic processes, including sleep patterns, memory, body temperature and mood.
There may be no single greater attribute to fun than its ability to improve our coping skills. According to Heel That Pain, the positive boost you get from leisure activities and play can come to the rescue when stressful situations arise. Stress is mentally and physically draining.Taking the time to relax, enjoy yourself and spend time with others doing activities that make you feel like yourself can help you feel less tired, more mentally awake and more capable. Fun cleanses the mind and sharpens the memory.
And just as it takes two to tango, fun activities tend to improve our relationships with others. It fulfills a sense of social connection, which is a fundamental human need. Making a habit of relaxing, engaging in activities you enjoy and spending time with people who make you happy has been shown to lower stress, generate positive feelings and give you better sleep, better coping abilities and improved relationships. Is that not something we ought to prioritize?
Two groups that need to follow the fun prescription appear to be millennials and young people. While I hate to bring up the current epidemic in this country of “deaths of despair,” the increase in such deaths has been especially pronounced for younger Americans. A recent report released by Trust for America’s Health alongside Well Being Trust also revealed that younger Americans report higher rates of depression and anxiety than previous generations.
The report points to a number of generation-specific factors plaguing today’s millennials. They include financial stressors stemming from student loan debt, health care and high housing costs. Surprisingly, social support may also be lacking for millennials, as fewer are taking part in faith- and community-based organizations and more are delaying marriage.
We received a glimmer of good news recently when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that annual drug deaths are falling in this country for the first time since 1990, but it is still not a pretty picture. According to federal data, U.S. suicide rates are now at their highest level since World War II.
According to the report, youth suicide is becoming an especially pressing problem, with rates rising more rapidly among boys and girls ages 10 to 14 than in any other age group. Researchers theorize that social media may be contributing to rising suicide rates. As the report states, heavy social media use may lead to fewer meaningful in-person interactions, which can protect against mental health issues and suicidal behavior. It can also lead to unhealthily comparing oneself with others.
By the time a person reaches maturity, in theory, their capacity to focus and concentrate should be at its best. The brain should be able to discriminate between important information and distractions. Today’s digital age seems hard-wired to throw obstacles in the path of a person’s focus and concentration. Our ever-present smartphones inhibit the ability to remain focused on a task. Each time we interrupt something we were doing to check our phone, we break our concentration and have to start over.
According to a 2018 survey by the technology company Asurion, Americans check their mobile phones an average of 80 times a day. The most frequently phone-checking users surveyed checked their phones more than 300 times daily. You have to wonder … How can we concentrate on improving our health and well-being — or the dangers of social media — when we cannot seem to concentrate on anything?
For the first time that I can recall, at least one survey has tried to measure health issues caused by the digital age. In a new study (published June 19 in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal), researchers state that they were able to predict 21 types of medical conditions by analyzing people’s Facebook profiles. Researchers found Facebook status updates to be particularly effective at predicting diabetes and mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and psychoses. In other words, social media usage may be leading to some consequences from a health point of view.
At the same time, the latest NPR-IBM Watson Health poll has been released. Surprise — more than 84 percent of people surveyed said Americans are angrier today compared with a generation ago. When asked about their own feelings, 42 percent of those polled said they were angrier in 2018 than they had been in the past. When asked if people are more likely to express their anger on social media than in person, 9 in 10 people said that was the case.
We cannot reverse the technology revolution now underway, nor should we try. But something is making us angrier, sadder, more isolated, more divided. It’s about time we do something about it.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness.