Hugs do a heart good

I've written about this topic before, but it's so timeless — and so important — that it's worth covering again. People need hugs.

I'm not referring only to the "grab-you-around-the-shoulders-and-squeeze-you big-long-and-hard" kind, I'm thinking of acknowledgements and words of encouragement. People need affirmation. And it doesn't happen enough. I call the non-squeezing variety "word-hugs." They're phrases like "Well done" or "Way to go," offered frequently. (Now, how hard is that?)

My interest in this issue started when I heard about a study at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. It concluded "Hugs do a heart good." The design involved 100 adults, all married or living in long-term relationships. They were told to hold hands while viewing a pleasant, 20-minute video, after which they were to hug for 20 seconds. A similar, comparison group of people rested quietly, without any contact. Finally, both groups were told about a recent event likely to elicit stress and/or anger.

I'm not sure what stress-inducing information was shared, but the effect was dramatic. The reactions highly favored the handholding-huggers. Blood pressure soared in the no-contact group; heart rates jumped. This study concluded close personal moments (the kind that involve hugging and snuggling) had the potential to improve the overall health of both sexes and offer a particular advantage to the heart health of women.

I suspect most women already know about the possible benefits. They almost automatically greet one another with a warm, friendly hug and a remark like "I absolutely love your hair!" Men tend to greet one another with a handshake (or head-bobbing) and seldom reference hair — unless it involves a joke about losing it.

In a world that's somewhat sparse in its loving ways and in a country that's still trying to figure out health care, the benefits from receiving more hugs and more positive human contact could lead us toward "¦ who knows?

Here's the plan: we all start to include more hugging and verbally encouraging behaviors in our daily routines and let those stress-inducing events occur naturally, as they will anyway.

It seems straightforward. Affirming words and warm physical contact can offer health protections. Studies have shown elderly adults who live alone often suffer from "touch hunger."

Reassurance visits, complete with an embrace, have a positive effect on physical and psychological well-being. An Australian study showed drug-addicted babies who received more snuggling and cuddling had markedly better overall development. Canadian research found baby rats licked a lot by the mama rat thrived.

What I take away from all this is that hugging, cuddling, handholding, smooching (the licking part I'm a little less certain about) may lead to better overall health. But, I don't think we need instructions from researchers in order to perform. All it takes is this "¦open your arms and raise them up and out, straight ahead of you. Now, find someone to wrap those arms around.

If hugging doesn't appeal, try the "encouraging word" approach. Do it now. Focus on the person nearest you. Wrap good words around them. Go ahead "¦ I can wait.

Well done.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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