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Social Support and Seniors

Group exercises help older clients fight isolation and stay with their fitness programs.

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Group of seniors together for social support

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

See also: The Benefits of Social Connections in Fitness

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.

See also: How to Create a Workout Community

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.

See also: Reclaim Wellness and Health for Seniors


  • Focus on adding a social component to each class.
  • Encourage talking and sharing during class.
  • Include partner activities that foster cooperation and teamwork.
  • Include opportunities for pre- and postworkout gatherings.
  • Ask participants to put together a music playlist; this activity builds a sense of inclusion, value and respect.
  • Offer classes later in the morning or early afternoon—a great opportunity to fill those slower times in the day when most people are working or in school.
  • Offer classes in community centers, churches, parks and retirement homes, helping people socialize and giving them easier access to your services.
  • Partner with and offer classes prior to or after social service programs (Belza et al. 2004).


  • Older adults are less physically active than any other group: Only 15.3% of people aged 65–74 and 8.7% of people 75 and over meet federal guidelines—150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity) in at least 10-minute increments, plus muscle-strengthening exercises twice per week (Clarke, Norris & Schiller 2017).
  • Life expectancies have increased by 30 years over the past century, and today people 65 and older are the nation’s leading growth demographic. By 2030, 1 out of 5 Americans will be 65 or older, and by 2050, 89 million will be in this category—more than doubling the 2012 estimate of 43.1 million (CDC 2013).
  • People over 50 own 80% of U.S. financial assets and have 50% of discretionary income (CGF 2013).


Use of fitness trackers and wearable devices has skyrocketed in the past few years. Last year alone, this industry recorded $1.5 billion in sales and is expected to increase to $5 billion by 2019 (Sullivan & Lachman 2016). Many of the wearable technology devices include social-support components in addition to tracking and goal setting, which makes them valuable tools for fitness professionals to increase socialization and exercise adherence in older adults.

Key factors in wearable tech for older clientele:

  • Creating teams can promote social contact as members encourage each other to meet goals.
  • Wearables are most effective when used by a group of people who already know each other and are using the same device.
  • Evidence suggests fitness trackers are more effective in increasing physical activity than pedometers (Sullivan & Lachman 2016).
  • Wearable technology can cue people to action, alerting them to their sedentary behavior (Lyons et al. 2017).


Belza, B., et al. 2004. Older adult perspectives on physical activity and exercise: Voices from multiple cultures. Preventing Chronic Disease, 1 (4), A09.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2013. The State of Aging and Health in America 2013. National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

CGF (Consumer Goods Forum). 2013. Understanding the needs and consequences of the ageing consumer. Accessed Oct. 1, 2017: www.theconsumergoodsforum.com/files/Publications/ageing_consumer_report.pdf.

Chiang, K.C., et al. 2008. “It is our exercise family”: Experiences of ethnic older adults in a group-based exercise program. Preventing Chronic Disease, 5 (1).

Clarke, T.C., Norris, T., & Schiller, J.S. 2017. Early release of selected estimates based on data from the 2016 National Health Interview Survey. National Center for Health Statistics. Accessed Oct. 1, 2017: www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/earlyrelease/earlyrelease201705.pdf.

Deforche, B., & de Bourdeaudhuij, I. 2000. Differences in psychosocial determinants of physical activity in older adults participating in organised versus non-organised activities. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 40 (4), 362–72.

Hamar, B., et al. 2013. Impact of a senior fitness program on measures of physical and emotional health and functioning. Population Health Management 16 (6), 364–72.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T.B., & Layton, J.B. 2010. Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7 (7), e1000316.

Killingback, C., Tsofliou, F., & Clark, C. 2017. Older people’s adherence to community-based group exercise programmes: A multiple-case study. BMC Public Health, 17 (115).

Lyons, E.J., et al. 2017. Feasibility and acceptability of a wearable technology physical activity intervention with telephone counseling for mid-aged and older adults: A randomized controlled pilot trial. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 5 (3), e28.

Ortman, J.M., Velkoff, V., & Hogan, H. 2014. An aging nation: The older population in the United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed Oct. 1, 2017: www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1140.pdf.

Sullivan, A.N., & Lachman, M.E. 2016. Behavior change with fitness technology in sedentary adults: A review of the evidence for increasing physical activity. Frontiers in Public Health, 4, 289.

Wilson, C., & Moulton, B. 2010. Loneliness among older adults: A national survey of adults 45+. Prepared by Knowledge Networks and Insight Policy Research. Washington, D.C.: AARP. Accessed Oct. 1, 2017: https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/general/loneliness_2010.pdf.

Maria Luque, PhD, MS, CHES

Maria Luque, PhD, is a health educator, fitness expert, presenter, writer and USAF veteran. She created Fitness in Menopause, a company dedicated to helping women navigate the challenges and rewards of menopause. Her course “Menopausal Fitness: Training the Menopausal Client” is NASM-, AFAA- and ACE- accredited. She holds graduate and postgraduate degrees in health sciences and teaches at the College of Health and Human Services at Trident University International.

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