Fitness pros working with our graying population deal with the physical and cognitive losses of aging every day. But what about the social losses?

Aging is not just muscle and bone loss, weaker eyesight, and slower reaction times. It’s also retirement, bereavement and empty-nest syndrome. These fundamental shifts in the lifestyles of the elderly create social deficits—feelings of loneliness, social isolation and even depression—that can discourage adherence to fitness programs.

Technological advances designed to streamline social interactions have done little to ease a growing sense of separation. In the past two decades, the number of Americans reporting that they had no confidant tripled, while 32% of respondents in a survey of 60- to 69-year-olds and 25% of respondents in the 70-plus category said they were lonely (Wilson & Moulton 2010; Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton 2010).

These numbers are crucial because social relationships are key determinants for health, morbidity and mortality (Killingback, Tsofliou & Clark 2017; Hamar et al. 2013). Indeed, good social relationships are as important as quitting smoking and are linked to a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared with poor or insufficient social relationships (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton 2010).

Exercise adherence is a challenge for every age group, of course, but the stakes are arguably higher with older adults—fitness pros can potentially add years to the lives of clients, years that might otherwise be lost to inactivity and isolation.

The Role of Socialization in Exercise

Socialization is a powerful factor for people over 60 because having an active friend is a significant predictor of physical activity (Sullivan & Lachman 2016). Physical activity and social support are great for health and well-being, and the statistics suggest that those who lack both are the ones who need them the most.

The best advice for fitness professionals? Combine socialization with exercise! For people living alone, group exercise programs that foster social interactions are especially important; they may be your clients’ main form of socializing (Chiang et al. 2008).

Even better, the exercise group can become part of a social network that extends beyond the time spent exercising, which is “important for facilitating self-esteem, self-respect and personal competence” (Deforche & de Bourdeaudhuij 2000). Or, as one participant in a community-based group exercise program put it: “It is our exercise family!” (Chiang et al. 2008).

In other words, the psychosocial benefits are just as important as the physical ones. People look forward to seeing each other in the group, and that social support is associated with increased adherence rates (Hamar et al. 2013). One study noted that while half of the participants who start an exercise program typically drop out within the first 6 months,
community-based exercise interventions have adherence rates of 69.1%–75% (Killingback, Tsofliou & Clark 2017).

Some of the increase in adherence rates may be explained by the twofold effect of social relationships: Emotional support from family and friends helps people indirectly get better at overcoming stress and crisis, and people in a social network encourage each other to make healthier lifestyle choices (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton 2010).

The strong correlation between social interactions and adherence suggests that including a socialization component in group exercise settings can be a powerful factor in helping older adults start a regular exercise program and stick with it.

Socialization-Based Exercise

Because older adults have different priorities and motivations, it’s important to create programs tailored to motivators (see the sidebar “Program Design Tips”). There are six factors that influence adherence: instructor, individual behavior, program design, social interaction, perceived benefits, and energizing and empowering effects (Killingback, Tsofliou & Clark 2017).

Instructors should be knowledgeable and competent, yet approachable and willing to show concern (e.g., by calling if participants don’t show up). Fun is one of the biggest factors, and participants point to engaging and caring instructors as the principal reason why they keep coming back to class (Chiang et al. 2008).

It is critical for instructors to be sensitive to the unique experiences and challenges of this population and to adapt exercises and show concern for their likes and dislikes (Belza et al. 2004). When you consider participants’ feedback on program design, you are giving a clear sign that you value and respect your clients. Social interactions in the group provide a sense of support, enjoyment and belonging and deliver the psychosocial gains they desire (Killingback, Tsofliou & Clark 2017). Bear in mind that while the social component of group exercise is a major contributor to adherence, physical gains such as weight loss, cardiovascular fitness and strength are just as important. Design programs with all these components in mind, while still factoring in any needed modifications or participant limitations.

Ending Isolation Is Key

Older adults’ feelings of social isolation can dramatically influence their overall health and well-being; group exercise that fosters socialization may boost enjoyment and adherence. Studies on the SilverSneakers® program, a health plan benefit for Medicare beneficiaries that consists of customized group exercise promoting socialization, suggest that these types of classes “may help to slow or reverse natural trajectories toward declining health and functioning among seniors” (Hamar et al. 2013).

This creates a win-win for fitness professionals: expanding your business by serving a growing senior population, all while fostering social interactions and improving participants’ well-being.