If you ever feel guilty (or unproductive or juvenile or gossipy) about your daily rap 'n' yap session with the girls, consider it cold cream for your well-being. Such talks are essential to emotional growth and mental health, according to Jean Baker Miller, MD, who cowrote the book on gal bonding, The Healing Connection, in 1997. Based on more than a decade of research and many decades of clinical practice, Miller concludes that not having at least one close woman friend can contribute to psychological dysfunction. "Eating and sleeping disorders, anxiety, certainly depression—all that can result from chronic disconnection," she says.

You can also add unhealthy aging to that list. One of the findings from the Nurses' Health Study—an ongoing investigation of more than 100,000 nurses since 1976—revealed that among the oldest women, those who didn't have at least one confidante showed the same decline in physical functioning and vitality as heavy smokers and the most severely overweight. Conversely, the more friends a woman had, the better shape she was in, "although the research suggests it's the quality of the relationship that counts," says lead researcher Yvonne L. Michael. She explains that close friendships "provide a buffer for stressful living that is likely to play out through your immune and endocrine systems, allowing you to age healthier." In Michael's opinion, having strong connections is just as important for health as exercise. But yes, you still have to hit the gym (and you were hoping you could replace your workout with a group hug).

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