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Group Fitness Classes Can Combat Loneliness, Isolation in Seniors

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Key Takeaways

  • Group fitness classes can significantly decrease feelings of loneliness and social isolation, a recent study suggests.
  • Because of gym closures and social distancing, these classes may be on hold right now, but virtual options can offer the same benefits.

Older adults who participate in community-based programs such as group fitness classes report decreased loneliness and social isolation, according to a recent study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.????

Researchers looked at 382 participants of a community-based group health class where participants were all over age 50, with an average age of 77. They found that it didn't take much to reduce feelings of isolation—even one session of group fitness led to reduced feelings of loneliness six months later compared to those who didn't do any exercise together.

This is significant, researchers concluded, since social isolation and loneliness have been associated with chronic disease risk and early mortality in older adults in previous studies. For example, one notable study?? compared the mortality risk of social isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes daily.??

Benefits of Exercise

Even before the pandemic, older adults were increasingly showing interest in getting more active. According to a 2018 survey?? from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), one of the biggest fitness “trends” is training for older adults.?? The organization noted that these seniors are retiring healthier than previous generations, and that there are more highly active older people.

In the past, the ACSM noted, older adults were often ignored by the fitness community, but increasingly, even those with chronic conditions, frailty, low bone density, and other aging-related issues are taking up functional fitness program activities.

In part, this may be because of ample research, in the past five years especially, that's highlighted the significant benefits exercise can play, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Diabetes management and prevention
  • Cardiovascular disease management and prevention
  • Quality sleep
  • Lower stress
  • Better immune system function
  • Improved joint and bone function
  • Better cognitive health
  • Improved hormone regulation

The Social Aspect of Group Fitness

Feeling part of a community through group classes can be a major part of staying engaged, and also conveys social benefits for older adults.

“Many older people who haven’t exercised may not know what it feels like to be in a community like that,” says Aaron Leventhal, NSCA-CPT, owner of Fit Studios in Minneapolis. “But it can go a long way toward keeping you motivated, checking in on your progress, and sharing thoughts about how everyone is doing.”

There are senior-specific classes like SilverSneakers, but even multi-generational programs like Aqua Zumba or Pilates are touted as solid, low-impact choices that provide just as much socializing as sweating. Even though those classes are not held right now, Leventhal says using virtual programs can be just as effective, because it helps older adults and others feel part of a group.

"The most important aspect of a group class is being together," he says. "You get to know each other, you look forward to seeing each other. Maybe right now that's happening through a screen, but it's still happening. You maintain those connections, even when you're apart."

Getting Started

For those who weren't in a group class or program before COVID and also didn't have a regular fitness practice, one helpful initial step could be signing up for a few sessions with a trainer who has experience with older adults, suggests Leventhal.

In addition to getting approval for exercise from your healthcare professional, a certified trainer can assess—even through a screen—what your challenges might be in terms of strength, balance, and management of chronic conditions.

When you are ready for a virtual class setting, consider choosing one that allows the instructor to see you, adds Sheri Saperstein Richberg, CPT, a trainer who often works with seniors. Although a pre-recorded training session is helpful for convenience, you'll want to make sure your form is correct for injury prevention, and also, that "live" aspect can deliver that feeling of connection.

"For many people, this is a time when they're just starting live virtual fitness classes for the first time, and they might feel uncomfortable at first because it's new," says Richberg. "But it's helpful to know you're not alone, that's a common feeling. Also, these are very welcoming environments and people love supporting each other in this way. That's helpful for older adults, but also for everyone."

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  1. Mays AM, Kim S, Rosales K, Au T, Rosen S. The leveraging exercise to age in place (Leap) study: engaging older adults in community-based exercise classes to impact loneliness and social isolation.?Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2020;doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2020.10.006

  2. Holt-Lunstad J. The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness: prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors.?Public Policy & Aging Report. 2017;27(4):127-130. doi:10.1093/ppar/prx030

  3. Thompson WR. Worldwide survey of fitness trends for 2018: the crep edition.?ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 2017;21(6):10-19. doi:10.1249/FIT.0000000000000341