“You’ve got a friend in me”: Can your peers help you keep active?

The Bottom Line

  • Being physically active holds benefits for weight loss and management, bone health, mobility, mental health, and much more.  
  • Worldwide, 1 in 4 adults do not engage in enough physical activity.
  • Financial, physical, and social barriers—such as cost, illness, having no one to exercise with, exclusionary exercise facilities, and lack of older adults leading exercise programs—deter older adults from physical activity. 
  • Peer-led exercise programs and peer-support programs may improve adherence to physical activity in older adults.  
  • Consider finding a peer-led exercise program or peer-support program in your community. 

Day by day, the list of ways exercise helps nourish our minds, bodies, and souls only seems to get longer. Paybacks such as keeping bones strong, feeling mentally well, achieving a healthier body weight, and reducing the risk of chronic disease are just a few of the benefits on this list (1-5). However, as we’ve seen time and time again, just because something is good for us doesn’t mean it'll make its way into our regular routine. This is demonstrated by the fact that 1 in 4 adults don’t get an adequate amount of exercise—making lack of physical activity one of the top risk factors for death across the globe (6).

What’s stopping people, namely older adults, from putting on their running shoes and signing up for an exercise class or program in their community? It turns out there are a variety of hurdles to overcome, including those that are financial (e.g., cost), physical (e.g., illness), and social (e.g., not having an exercise buddy) (7-10). To get a better picture of why some older adults may not be joining in on exercise opportunities, we must also consider that fitness environments—such as gyms or recreational centres—tend to better accommodate the needs, wants, and preferences of younger populations. Additionally, exercise programs tend to be delivered by younger health professionals, widening the gap between those developing and leading these programs and those potentially attending them (7).

In response to some of these barriers, a systematic review examined whether peer-led exercise programs and peer support programs were effective in motivating older adults to exercise, as well as their influence on health outcomes.

What the research tells us

Within the review, peer-led exercise programs involved trained older adults delivering the program. On the other hand, peer support programs involved older adults who provided participants with advice, encouragement, education, and mentorship alongside health professionals who delivered the program. Overall, the review highlights that peer-led exercise programs may be effective in preserving older adult participation in exercise programs, and potentially to the same degree as programs that are led by professionals. What’s more, a positive impact on adherence may also be seen for peer-support programs. That said, a small number of studies included in the review found that peer-led programs weren’t more effective in improving health outcomes like physical function.

More research, which includes larger numbers of participants, is needed to gain a better understanding of the effects of peer-led programs and peer support on physical function (7).

To add to the evidence base on peer-related strategies, a more recent review found that peer-supported lifestyle strategies can increase physical activity in adults, while another suggests that peer mentoring can do the same in patients with cancer (11;12).

In order to reap the rewards of exercise, the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults aged 18 years and older take part in exercises that build muscle and strengthen bones at least twice a week. Additionally, aerobic exercise should be performed for a minimum of 150 minutes each week at moderate- to- vigorous intensity (1). If you’re having trouble meeting these standards on your own, consider finding an exercise program within your community that is led by trained peers or includes elements of peer-support. It may give you the extra push you need.

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  1. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. Canadian physical activity guidelines. [Internet] 2020. [cited September 2020]. Available form https://csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP_PAGuidelines_0-65plus_en.pdf
  2. Murtagh EM, Michols L, Mohammed MA, et al. The effect of walking on risk factors for cardiovascular disease: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials. Prev Med. 2015; 72:34-43. doi: 10.1016/j.ypnmed.2014.12.041.
  3. Zhao R, Zhang M, Zhang Q. The effectiveness of combined exercise interventions for preventing postmenopausal bone loss: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2017; 47(4):241-251. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2017.6969.
  4. Gordon BR, McDowell CP, Hallgren M, et al. Association of efficacy of resistance exercise training with depressive symptoms. JAMA Psychiatry. 2018; 75(6):566-576. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.0572.  
  5. Batacan RB Jr, Duncan MJ, Dalbo VJ, et al. Effects of high-intensity interval training on cardiometabolic health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies. Br J Sports Med. 2017; 51(6):494-503. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2015-095841.
  6. World Health Organization. Physical activity. [Internet] 2018. [cited September 2020]. Available form https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity 
  7. Burton E, Farrier K, Hill KD, et al. Effectiveness of peers in delivering programs or motivating older people to increase their participation in physical activity: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2018; 36(6): 699-678. 
  8. Baert V, Gorus E, Mets T, et al. Motivators and barriers for physical activity in the oldest old: A systematic review. Ageing Res Rev. 2011; 10:464-474. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2011.04.001. 
  9. Burton E, Farrier K, Lewin G, et al. Motivators and barriers for older people participating in resistance training: A systematic review. J Aging Phys Act. 2016; 25(2):311-324. doi: 10.1123/japa.2015-0289.
  10. Hill AM, Hoffmann T, McPhail S, et al. Factors associated with older patients’ engagement in exercise after hospital discharge. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2011; 92(9): 1395-1403. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2011.04.009. 
  11. Lim S, Lee WK, Tan A, et al. (2021). Interventions sur les habitudes de vie soutenues par les pairs sur le poids corporel, l'apport énergétique et l'activité physique chez les adultes : une revue systématique et méta-analyseObes Rev. 2021; 22(12):e13328. doi: 10.1111/obr.13328.
  12. Sezgin MG, Bektas H. Effect of peer mentoring on physical activity in patients with cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. J Clin Nurs. 2023; 32(11-12):2410-2418. doi: 10.1111/jocn.16320.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of new and old blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with changing public health recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.