Social Connection Impacts Participation in Senior Fitness Programs
Physical and Social Wellbeing are Fundamentally Linked.
A vital component of the 6 Dimensions of Wellness, social wellbeing is a crucial part of active aging and whole person health. Several studies have shown that people who are more social live longer, enjoy better physical health, and have healthier minds. A study from the Rush University Memory and Aging Project concluded that a higher level of social engagement in old age is associated with better cognitive function.
A study out of Cambridge University found a direct connection between the level of social activity and cognitive decline for people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. And, a study conducted at Brigham Young University, states that, “the effect of [social isolation and loneliness] is comparable to obesity.”
In 2010, researchers analyzed 148 studies that examined the connection between social isolation and mortality. They found that “individuals’ experiences within social relationships significantly predicted risk of mortality.” In other words, people with stronger social relationships are likely to live longer.
There’s no getting around it: Humans are social creatures, with a strong desire throughout their lives to seek out and connect with other people. This desire for human connection does not weaken as we age. In fact, for many seniors, the need to create and maintain strong social connections intensifies as the years go by.
Yet, one of the biggest challenges for seniors is maintaining a social network that provides ample opportunities to engage in healthy relationships and rewarding experiences.
As we age, friends and family retire, many move away, and others die. This leaves many older adults without nearby friends to meet up with on a regular basis. It’s even more difficult for seniors with physical or cognitive impairments that prevent them from driving or getting around independently. In these cases, it’s far too easy for older adults to become isolated and depressed, conditions that lead to further physical and cognitive decline.
Loneliness is an emotional, mental, and physical condition. It has been shown to lead to several health issues, including higher blood pressure, increased susceptibility to illness, and a higher risk of Alzheimer’s. In addition, there is the obvious reality that loneliness is painful in and of itself. As social creatures, feeling alone is rarely an agreeable experience.
To prevent the possibility of loneliness taking over as they age, it’s important that seniors make a conscious effort to create new social connections. For many, this is a primary reason for choosing to live in a senior living community or participate in activities at their local senior center.
Understanding the intrinsic link between physical health and social wellbeing, many senior living communities are increasing participation in their fitness programs by leveraging social opportunities.
Peconic Landing is a continuing care retirement community in New York that recently expanded their Community Center to includes a state-of-the-art fitness center. Their fitness manager explained how part of the reason behind the decision to add the fitness center was to increase exercise participation through fostering social connection.
“One of our biggest goals has always been to increase participation in the wellness programs offered on our campus. We felt remodeling and expanding our fitness center would allow us to increase the variety of activities we offer and thereby increase participation across our entire community - and it really has! I recently had the privilege of giving an award to a woman who had lived in our community for over a decade without once setting foot inside the gym. Jean is 91 years old, has chronic hip injuries, and uses a walker. But, when the remodeled center opened, she was first in line! She said she wanted to make sure she was the first person to be issued a HUR ID and the first person to use the new gym. Over the next 224 days, she was at the gym for 216 of them! As someone who is deeply involved in the community, she is one of the members that frequently comes to the gym with her friends - some of whom wouldn't have visited the gym without her prompting!”
Another senior living community in New York decided to see if they could increase fitness participation through social connection by leveraging teamwork and positive peer pressure. Canterbury Woods, launched a fitness competition aimed at increasing the number of participants consistently showing up at the gym to train on HUR strength training equipment.
“What happened was really amazing”,explains the community’s Fitness Coordinator.“One of the captains was calling her team every night to find out if they went to the gym and how they did. Team members were encouraging each other and cheering one another on. In fact, the residents got so into the competition that we had to set limits to how much they could use the machines!”
Consistency is important for physical and social wellbeing.
Consistent lifelong physical activity that supports physical health is foundational to whole person health and cannot be separated from mental, emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing.As such, fitness classes and exercise programs that pull people together to engage in a common activity or interest are an excellent way for seniors to care for their physical, mental and social health. In fact, classes and programs that encourage consistent visits to a fitness center are particularly effective in building social connections because they encourage socialization on a routine basis, often with the same people.
For example, an evidence based community exercise program for older adults called “Enhance Fitness” discovered that social ties was a primary factor in in consistent participation. Analyzing the program’s success, facilitators asked questions about the factors that helped participants participate consistently. Reflected in many of their answers was a strong sense of cohesion amount members, some even calling the group their “exercise family”.
But, how do we encourage seniors to visit a gym or join an exercise program when they aren’t in the habit of engaging in regular physical exercise? Perhaps even more important – how can we encourage them to stick with it long enough to receive the social, cognitive, and physical rewards foundational to making physical exercise a lifelong habit?
The key to getting them to come back might be helping them tap into an intrinsically motivating reason to return on a regular enough basis to form social bonds.
Dawn Mans, the Wellness Connection Coordinator for Three Pillars Senior Living, believes that in order for people to stick with an exercise routine, it’s important to immediately tap into an intrinsically motivating reason to maintain physical health.
“If our residents and community members don't have a meaningful connection to WHY they are taking on an exercise program, they are much more likely to give up before achieving any kind of meaningful results. Many of the seniors who come into the gym for the first time have never worked out before, or haven't worked out in a long time. Their reason for not working out isn't because they didn't know that exercise is good for them. It's that they haven't connected exercise to their ability to live their life as they want to live it. Making that connection is HUGE because exercise is one of those things that doesn't pay off immediately. So, if within the first couple of weeks I can help them tap into an intrinsically motivating factor for sticking with it, they're more likely to create a habit.”
For trainers who want to connect the dots between physical and social wellbeing…
Physical and social wellbeing are fundamentally linked. Good physical health is foundational to our ability to get out there and participate in social activities that enrich our lives and support our overall wellbeing. For trainers working hard to create a holistic, consistent training plan for their clients that supports their lifestyle, the HUR FreeTrainer is a useful, practical tool.
The FreeTrainer allows trainers to include strength and cardio equipment training along with group activities, functional training, and other non-equipment exercises in a comprehensive paper free training plan for each client. Through a simple swipe of a wristband, each user's complete training plan displays on the easy to read touch screen, allowing users to retain control over when they workout. Trainers can track data for each user's complete training plan, and instantly generates up-to-the-minute wellness program reports.