The impact of physical activity on loneliness and social isolation for older adults


Posted: December 08, 2022 | Word Count: 354

It’s been well-established that physical activity like walking, yoga and going to a fitness center has many health benefits for older adults. These include better sleep, less anxiety and reduced risk of heart disease, along with many other benefits that may improve overall health.

But what if physical activity could help older adults feel less alone, even if they were exercising alone?

Researchers from AARP Services Inc., UnitedHealthcare and OptumLabs set out to investigate this question, focusing on two areas:

  • Could physical activity help to reduce social isolation and/or loneliness?
  • Could physical activity promote higher levels of resilience, purpose or positive perception of aging?

There’s a continued emphasis on supporting older adults as they work to find meaning, purpose and resilience as they age. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may have been harder to find opportunities to exercise, which contributed to greater feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

The results of the study point to strong evidence that physical activity can help older adults feel less alone and socially isolated, as well as positively increase their feelings of resilience and purpose.

Researchers found that:

  • Moderate and high physical activity were associated with significantly reduced rates (15%-30% lower) of severe loneliness and social isolation
  • The same level of physical activity was also associated with improved feelings (27%-150% higher) of resilience, purpose and a positive perception of aging

The level of physical activity came from the number of days a week someone would exercise (even walking or gardening), not the intensity of the exercise itself. Moderate to high levels ranged between three to four days a week or five-plus days a week, respectively.

“Continuing to be physically active over time may be one of the best things older adults can do for themselves to promote healthy aging — mental, physical and emotional,” said Shirley Musich, senior research director at OptumInsight and one of the co-authors of the study.

Talk with your doctor about healthy ways to incorporate fitness into your routine. For individuals recovering from an injury, consider seeking advice from a physical therapist who may identify areas requiring special focus.

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