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Eat your fruits and veggies and exercise to be healthy. Good advice, of course. You’ll feel better and be healthier if you do. But consider this: The two major social determinants/correlates of higher health care costs (generally driven by poor health) are food insecurity and loneliness.

Loneliness? Loneliness doesn’t necessarily translate to being alone. Unlike solitude, which can actually be beneficial, researchers say loneliness “causes our immune systems to function less efficiently, which over time, puts us at increased risk for developing all kinds of illnesses and diseases.” Further, it is noted, people impacted by loneliness are much “less likely to engage in beneficial habits like good hygiene, eating healthy and getting exercise and regular sleep,” which can contribute to additional health issues.

How does that happen in an era of social media, where we can literally connect with hundreds, even thousands of other people? Several recent studies have found that the overuse of social media and smart phone addiction (which often go hand in hand) play an increasing role in social isolation, as we lose the art of face-to-face communication. And it’s not just smart phones, but screens in general that can isolate us – from the teens who use their phones to communicate with the person sitting next to them to the seniors who spend the majority of their time watching TV. Screens can build a wall around us that prevents us from connecting to others, keeps us from exercising, and barrages us with unhealthy food ads.

On the other hand, a comprehensive study at the University of Pennsylvania found that study participants who reduced their social media screen time experienced significant decreases in depression and loneliness.

Try these ways to disconnect, and improve your social, mental and physical health:

Take an unplugged walk and smile. Over and over, research tells us that walking is one of the best things you can do for your physical health. It’s easy, it’s free, and it can be a great opportunity to make a social connection. Take a brisk walk outside, or if weather makes it difficult, walk through your office building or the interior of Gateway Mall. Make eye contact as often as you can and smile. Studies say smiling has a positive effect on your emotions, and other research says the more you move, the better your mood.

Try a “no phones at the table” rule. At home, put a bowl near your entryway and have everyone drop their phones in it at dinner time. If dining out, designate one person to carry a phone for emergencies. Park a few blocks away and walk to and from the restaurant. Then, whether at home or out, focus on each other rather than your phones. In countries like Spain, where the cuisine is loaded with calories, Spaniards still live healthier lives than us because the culture reinforces social connections at mealtime, and the environment supports walking or biking to most designations.

Nip it in the bud. There’s a reason most people in tech industries don’t want their young kids exposed to screens at an early age. Silicon Valley consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. Studies say that smart phone addiction affects the same areas of the brain as cocaine, and it’s a hard habit to break. If you feel your youngster needs a phone for emergencies, consider a flip phone and rest easier.

Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln and LNKTV Health wish you an upcoming year of real connections, brisk walks and phone-free dinners. Happy New Year!

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Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln (HealthyLincoln.org) and LNKTV Health (LNKTV.lincoln.ne.gov) bring you "Health and the City," a monthly column that examines relevant community health issues and spotlights the local organizations that impact community wellness. Direct questions and comments to jpearsonanderson@healthylincoln.org.

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