The term “social x-ray” is an unflattering moniker for socialites so thin you can practically see right through them. But could there be something about endless socializing that might fight flab? Hard to imagine, as hitting the party circuit can pose challenges for many dieters who find it hard to resist free-flowing drinks and heaping buffets. Yet intriguing new basic research suggests social stimulation may play a role in resisting unwanted weight gain.

Ohio State University researchers looked at the impact of social stimulation on metabolic health among various groups of laboratory mice. When researchers tripled or even quadrupled the number of mice in a given space — and enhanced the environment with toys, wheels and tunnels — some interesting things happened. The stimulated mice reduced weight by 10% — and lost 49% of their fat. Even when a party-style diet (high in fat and calories) was added to the party-style environment, the socially active mice had 71% lower body weights than their bored, less social peers. A big factor was thought to be the preponderance of more “brown fat” among the socialite mice (compared to white fat, darker fat has more energy burning mitochondria): the socially and physically stimulated mice enjoyed a 280% increase in the gene thought to convert white fat to the more metabolically beneficial brown variety.

Social, physical and intellectual engagement has long been recognized in preserving brain power — with exercise variety, challenging work, and mental games providing cognitive benefits. While it remains to be seen if staying socially active can help humans maintain a healthy weight, seeking out mentally positive friends can improve your outlook. By contrast, research suggests that obesity spreads through social networks as well.

Published January 1, 2012