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How romance makes your heart stronger

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Here’s some news you’ll love: Whether you’re dating or in a long-term relationship, your partner can improve your blood flow and increase your lifespan.

Emily Shiffer

By Emily Shiffer

It’s easy to be cynical about Valentine’s Day. The candlelit dinners, boxes of chocolates, roses by the dozen: It all seems to add up to a big cliché.

But don’t be so quick to write off the rituals of romance. Acting out your affections might be good for you. Evidence suggests that a heart that goes pitter-patter is less likely to break down.

That means the love you show your partner — on Valentine’s Day or any other day of the year — could help you (and them) avoid heart disease. Here’s how.

(And don’t worry if you’re not in a romantic relationship. You can get many of the same benefits by talking to your best friend.)

Falling in love is like low-level cardio exercise

You’ve probably felt your heart race after a partner’s touch. But early in a relationship, even a romantic gaze can get your blood pumping.

“Eye contact with a loved one, being around a loved one or simply thinking about a loved one prompts the brain to secrete adrenaline and norepinephrine,” says Ling Lam, PhD. He’s a licensed psychotherapist, a TEDx speaker and a lecturer in counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California.

Adrenaline and norepinephrine are hormones that also drive workouts. Their spike “causes the heart to beat faster and stronger, which mimics the effects of aerobic exercise,” says Lam. “This is especially pronounced in the early stage of falling in love.”

That doesn’t mean your date can replace your personal trainer. But it might make your next workout feel a little easier.

Physical touch releases relaxing hormones

Have you heard of oxytocin? It’s known as the love hormone. “Physical touch with a loved one — whether hugs or holding hands — prompts oxytocin secretion,” says Lam. “This serves to reduce the effect of stress hormones and creates a calming effect on the body.”

This can be good for your heart, according to a study published in Biological Psychology. In it, researchers found that after hugging their husbands or partners, women experienced a measurable drop in blood pressure.

And if you’re wondering what happens when things progress past hugs and holding hands, Harvard Medical School has an answer. In terms of exercise, sex is equal to raking leaves or playing pingpong. It’s not an intense workout, but it burns calories about 5 times faster than watching Hulu.

Related reading: What it’s really like to take Viagra.

Love can lower your blood pressure

It’s nice to know that physical touch can reduce blood pressure. But it might be a little weird to hug your partner all day long. As it turns out, you don’t have to. The feeling of love can improve your health from within.

“Being in love down-regulates the activities of the sympathetic nervous system — your fight-or-flight system — and decreases the overall stress response,” says Lam. And that can keep your blood pressure steady.

In a study from the University of Arizona, researchers asked subjects to plunge a foot into a bucket of ice water. People who were with their partners and love interests had smaller spikes in blood pressure compared to people who came into the study alone.

But here’s what else is interesting: The effect applied, in part, to subjects who were simply asked to think about their partner. The person didn’t even have to be in the room. The research found that the mere thought of a loved one can help keep your blood pressure lower.

That might help explain why, on average, married people have stronger hearts. Among those with heart disease, unmarried people are 45% more likely to die from a heart-related issue, according to research from Emory University School of Medicine.

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Being in a relationship can lead to healthier behavior

One simple way your romantic partner keeps you healthy is that they care about you. And when life gets tough, your partner is there to lean on. “Your loved one has an investment in your well-being and takes care of you when you need support,” says Lam.

This can play out in subtle ways. If your partner notices you’re drinking more alcohol or staying up later at night, they might bring it to your attention before it becomes a problem.

In addition, your partner can motivate you to exercise, eat a healthy diet and visit the doctor. According to a National Health Interview survey of more than 24,000 men, those who were married were most likely to report having recent screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.

Being in a relationship helps cure loneliness

It’s easy to take your long-term partner for granted. But don’t overlook the benefit of having someone to talk to. Not everybody is so lucky.

The World Health Organization has identified loneliness as a widespread concern. And it can be detrimental to health, says Lam. “Chronic loneliness increases stress, and chronic stress increases inflammation, which increases the risk of heart disease and death.”

Of course, Valentine’s Day doesn’t have a monopoly on love and romance. Whether you’re in a new relationship or a decades-long marriage, you can thank and celebrate your partner any time of the year. And maybe you should. After all, that person is adding more than life to your years. They’re also adding years to your life.

Here’s one more way to invest in health: Download the Optum Perks mobile app. It’s free, and it will allow you to search for discounts of up to 80% off on prescription medication.

 

Additional sources
Oxytocin overview:
Harvard Health Publishing
Hugging increases oxytocin and reduces blood pressure: Biological Psychology (2005). “More frequent partner hugs and higher oxytocin levels are linked to lower blood pressure and heart rate in premenopausal women
Sex as exercise: Harvard Health Publishing
Thinking about love keeps your blood pressure low: Psychophysiology (2019). “The impact of physical proximity and attachment working models on cardiovascular reactivity: Comparing mental activation and romantic partner presence
Married people have lower rates of heart disease: Journal of the American Heart Association (2017). “Marital Status and Outcomes in Patients with Cardiovascular Disease
Married men are more likely to visit the doctor regularly: National Center for Health Statistics

 

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