Battling Loneliness and Social Isolation
|James H. Rimmer, Ph.D., Director|
Not having seen her for quite some time, I couldn't help but notice that she looked a bit older and much heavier. The dark circles under her eyes and pale skin color belied the beauty of a glorious summer day, the sun shining brilliantly and temperatures in the mid-70s. This was the first time that we had spoken for more than 5 minutes in the 16 years that she has lived next door to me. With her sad eyes and soft-spoken voice, she described her new landscaping, which included the removal of large bushes that blanketed her front windows and blocked out the sun and view of the world. I was so pleased that we had a chance to speak and felt an amazing rush of happiness for my dear neighbor. She lacked friends and visitors these past 16 years and never left her home unless it were in a vehicle.
My neighbor's solitude consisted of living in darkness, curtains drawn on every window, and spending time outside her home only to travel to work and back or to pick up groceries. As I waved goodbye and began my 4-mile run, I started to wonder how many other people in this world are battling loneliness and social isolation, and are suffering silently without notice.
People who are depressed, sad, lonely, and socially isolated can benefit from a daily regimen of physical activity. While exercise can't eliminate someone's depression or loneliness, it can help. Many researchers have shown that depression and loneliness can be reduced or controlled through some balance of medication and exercise. It won't necessarily make the mental pain go away, but it will give the person a sense of structure and harmony that often can't be obtained from a job or family member.
I felt terribly sad for my neighbor. As I jogged away, I thought: "What would her life be like if she took long walks after work, went cycling or swimming, or performed some tai chi or relaxation exercises in her backyard with some soft and relaxing background music?" The answer that shot back to me was that it would undoubtedly be better; how much better no one knows, but it would be better than living with the curtains drawn and spending all her time either at work or inside her home. Perhaps my deep positive thoughts will find a place in her inner sanctuary. Exercise can't "cure" someone of depression or loneliness, but neither can drugs or therapy. All you can hope for is better control over a brutal condition that usurps life and keeps people in darkness and pain. Even a moment of relief is better than no relief at all. Exercise can provide that moment of relief and stringing enough 'moments' together can redistribute the proportion of happiness and sadness that one experiences in any given day.