So many of the things we associate with keeping trim -- hitting the gym, shopping for healthy food -- are actually fairly solitary activities. But is it possible that spending more time with friends and family is the key to losing weight? A new study from Ohio State university found that mice that were placed in more social environments lost more fat than their more isolated counterparts.
Both mice and humans have two kinds of fat -- brown fat and white fat. The white fat is the less desirable kind that tends to accumulate around the mid-section, while brown fat cells actually use up calories instead of storing them and help the body regulate temperature. Other studies have shown that retaining more brown fat is linked to better weight control. Writes Time reporter Alice Park:
Now [researcher] Lei Cao and his team at Ohio State University have found another potential way to take advantage of brown fat and help keep a leaner physique. When Cao's group put mice in socially challenging environments - those that contained 15 to 20 animals, along with running wheels, toys, tunnels and a maze - they found that the animals were able to transform more of their white fat into calorie-gobbling brown fat. These mice lost more abdominal fat than control mice and, when fed a high-fat diet, gained less weight.
So what does this mean for humans? The BBC also looked at the study and noted that the findings highlight the link between loneliness and ill health, and the need for face-to-face interactions for a wide variety of physical and mental health reasons. Author Leila Battison says:
The research highlights the fact that social interaction can be challenging, and maintaining a network of friends can be stressful. This stress is a positive thing for the body, prompting it to produce BDNF [Brain-Deprived Neurotrophic Factor] and convert the white fat to brown, preventing it building up and causing obesity.
And apparently it only takes a few good pals to have a positive effect: Researcher Matthew During said in the study that "it is not the size of your social network, but its depth and complexity, and your level of engagement with that network, that counts."
Even online communities can be beneficial: an 2009 study of the popular weight loss site Spark People found that the online community served as a significant support to help individuals reach their long term goals. Survey respondents said that the community was "available, responsive to questioning, empathetic and welcoming," and also helped keep them accountable for their goals, while spurring on some friendly competition -- similar to the type of 'challenging' social environment the mice in the study were subjected to.
So grab a mate for a stroll, ping a pal online, reach out and touch someone over the telephone -- it could be good for your waistline, and if not, it's still good for your soul.