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Friends are big part of health equation

When we talk about staying healthy, it seems that everyone (me included) spends an inordinate amount of time talking about staying active, eating right and getting your preventive screenings. But would you believe that your friends are one of the most important keys to maintaining your health status over the long haul?

Interestingly, friendships are directly related to your health and happiness. No one is quite sure why this is the case. But, it's true - people who have positive, meaningful relationships are notoriously healthier than others. In fact, even if you are carrying significant risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar, meaningful relationships appear to have a protective effect on neutralizing the potentially harmful consequences of these problems.

Consider for a moment some of the findings of recent studies. First, people who smoke and have a great social support network don't appear to manifest lung cancer as rapidly as those who smoke and don't have positive relationships. Now this is not to say that smoking isn't harmful - it most assuredly is. It's just that positive friendships can provide a little bit of protection.

Similarly, for those who are carrying too much weight, friends appear to have a similar protective effect and insulate (to a certain degree) the manifestations of things like high blood pressure and heart attacks.

But lose those friendships, and things can change in a hurry. As a result, if you want to keep your health throughout your lifespan, it's essential that you know how to make and keep friends.

Here are some ways to be a great friend:

• Be present. When you are with your friends, be attentive, live in the moment and enjoy the great gifts that are your friends!

• Show up when you're invited. If you're invited to a party, graduation, recital, etc., show your devotion and support by being there.

• Make an effort to laugh every time you see each other. There is nothing like laughing and smiling to bring people together. Share a humorous anecdote and simply take time out of your day to appreciate the funny things in life.

• Take care of each other. Look out for and protect each other. Stand up for your friends.

• Avoid expectations. Don't treat friendships like a job description, where certain milestones and accomplishments must be achieved. If you place high expectations on what a friend should say and do, it will likely cause tension, frustration and disappointment.

• Always treat your friends with respect. Even though you may have been friends for years, there's never an excuse for bad or rude behavior.

• Be brutally honest when you see destructive behavior. It's not your job to treat or diagnose, but if you think a friend has a problem behavior bring it up STAT.

• Send hand-written thank you notes. I know this sounds hokey, but research reveals that sending and receiving notes, letters and cards evokes tremendously positive feelings - and these are the feelings that keep us healthy.

• Challenge your friend to be better. Compliments are great, but sometimes the best gift is helping a friend take their skills and talents to the next level. Be honest and provide constructive criticism when you think it's beneficial.

• Be you. If you feel like you have to be fake to appease and sustain a certain friendship, you're doing yourself and that friend a disservice. Being a good friend means sharing your true self.

• Ask open-ended questions instead of giving advice. Most people don't want to be told what to do. If a friend asks you for advice, help them find their own solution by asking questions like, "Why do you think you want to do this?"

• Offer your skills and talents. Good friends enrich each other's lives. Share your gifts, whether it be listening, telling a joke, helping with household repairs, etc.

• Schedule time to be with each other. It's all too easy to get busy, and before you know it, six months fly by before you see your friend. Schedule a time to have lunch and socialize.

• Support your friend, but don't feel compelled to support a situation. If you think a friend is making a mistake (taking a certain job, dating a certain person), tell them. If they still proceed, you should still support them - it doesn't mean you're supporting the situation.

• Accept feedback. Don't get defensive or angry if a friend says something you don't want to hear. They're likely saying it because they care.

The Beatles were right. "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." Your friends are some of life's greatest blessings. Appreciate the gifts you've been given. It will keep you healthy - and happy - for a lifetime.