Here’s the Science Behind Hugging Your Way to Better Health, Wellness and Performance

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military hug
Command Chief Master Sgt. Ericka Kelly, Air Force Reserve Command, hugs Staff Sgt. Courtnie Flippen, 413th Aeromedical Staging Squadron optometry technician, July 14, 2018, at Robins Air Force Base, GA. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jamal D. Sutter)

As I’ve watched the Baltimore Orioles and their local Class AA minor league team, the Bowie Baysox, this year, I’ve noticed that catcher Adley Rutschman is a hugger. Rutschman was the top overall draft pick in 2019, and now he’s a rising star through the minor and now major leagues. 

The player quickly advanced from AA in Bowie to his first big league game with the Orioles in May. Ever since, the team has been on a tear, with winning months in June, July and, so far, August. This record is significant because, before this season, the last winning month for the Orioles was in 2017. 

Science says the benefits of hugging can aid with our health, longevity and performance. Hugging reduces anxiety, blood pressure and helps us to relax with a clear focus on the present situation. Hugging even balances out stress hormones. 

Why do hugs work this way?  According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, When someone hugs us, the stimulation of c-tactile afferents in our skin sends signals, via the spinal cord, to the brain’s emotion processing networks. This induces a cascade of neurochemical signals, which have proven health benefits. Some of the neurochemicals include the hormone oxytocin, which plays an important role in social bonding, slows down heart rate, and reduces stress and anxiety levels. The release of endorphins in the brain’s reward pathways supports the immediate feelings of pleasure and well-being derived from a hug or caress.” 

Eat, Sleep, Breathe and Hug

Our body has the amazing ability to reduce stress, improve well-being, performance and energy simply by sleeping better, learning to breathe properly and even hugging. These, along with proper nutrition, are natural “performance-enhancing drugs” that allow many top performers of our day to function at high levels. We can all use them to make our lives better as well.  

A Hug Communicates, “I Support You.”

A hug says, “I have your back and you are not alone.” This is a big point to make with people in your world, as it helps them with feelings of being alone and isolated. Use hugs to tell your group that “we are a team, and you are safe.” 

Boost to Self-Confidence and Happiness

Hugs can add confidence in your abilities and to happiness in general. Hugging your child, spouse or even a pet can turn the grieving process into recovery from sadness. 

Better Health Through Hugs

White blood cells, the immune-boosting cells that keep illness at bay, are increased through the power of a hug. 

Relax with a Hug and a Deep Breath

Add a deep inhale and exhale during a hug and feel the muscles relax and your mood change within minutes. For a moment, the stress of tomorrow and the sad news of yesterday can be reduced while you are placed in the present, where you can function without living in the past nor be stressed about the future. 

Get the Heart Pumping

Hugging can increase circulation throughout the body and into achy muscles and joints and may actually help in pain reduction. Yes, hugging can be good for heart health. 

Hormonal Response to the Hug

The hug releases oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine, all chemicals that help to lower anxiety, stress and blood pressure. They also improve sleep, which is our number one recovery tool. These hormones help us regulate and balance the stress hormone cortisol and also help increase libido, lose weight, and feel relaxed and needed. 

According to Medicinenet.com: “A 10-second hug helps the body fight infections, eases depression, and lessens tiredness. A 20-second hug reduces the harmful effects of stress, relieves blood pressure, and ensures a healthy heart. Increasing the hug ratio results in reduced blood pressure, decreased cortisol, improved healing, reduced cravings, and better immunity. Hugging a newborn child increases the baby's weight and improves its overall development.” 

Could it be that this infectious rookie player is the reason for this sudden improvement? Rutschman shows his team the benefits of the hug after each well-executed play or a pitcher’s save at the end of the game. 

Regardless of the exact reasons why the Orioles are winning, this new addition to the team has made them fun to watch again. The happiness, smiles and high levels of performance coming sooner than expected is affecting his teammates and fans alike. Thanks, Adley, for renewing my love of baseball and giving me good reasons to interrupt my wife’s day with multiple hugs. Let’s Go, O’s!

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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