More and more people are living alone, feeling lonely or suffering from being isolated. According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 5 older adults are lonely, feel they lack company, feel abandoned or isolated.(1) Such feelings have been exacerbated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic given the physical distancing measures, stay at home orders, or curfews. However, the vaccination campaigns are well underway and the number of infections is declining across the country, which seem to offer a glimmer of hope for resuming an active social life soon.
Dancing, aerobic, weight training, Nordic walking, aqua-fitness classes… We all know the benefits of physical activity for improving our cardiorespiratory capacities or increasing our muscle mass. But did you know that physical activity could also have beneficial effects on your social health?
What research tells us
A systematic review of 38 articles examined the effects of various physical activity interventions on the psychosocial health of 5,288 participants.(2) The studies were from many countries: the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, China, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, Korea, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Hungary and Georgia. Participants were recruited in a variety of ways, for example from outpatient clinics, university or community medical centres, through professionals in the health system or municipal services, or through cancer screening programs.
Participants were 67% female, aged 51 to 82, were in good health or had common chronic illnesses such as cardiorespiratory diseases, osteoporosis, depression, obesity, insomnia or cancer. People with cognitive impairments (dementia, for example) were not included in these studies.
The physical activities were primarily aerobic or muscle building in nature. These activities took place at the gym, at home, in community centres or shelters, online or by phone, in groups or individually. These interventions were also an opportunity to share information with participants, which made it possible to tackle various health-related topics.
What can we learn from these studies?
Despite the lack of data that would have allowed a comprehensive analysis of the effects of these interventions social support, these interventions showed a positive effect on social health.
• Physical activity helps build social relationships between people who share a common interest.
• Physical activity improves social skills and self-confidence.
• Exercise generates a sense of purpose and reduces loneliness.
• At the biological level, physical activity is associated with the production of several hormones linked to well-being and the release of endorphins which are involved in mood control, reduction of the stress hormone, as well as the the activation of your grey matter (a major component of the central nervous system).
How to improve your social health?
If your physical condition allows it, join a walking group! This light to moderate-intensity activity offers good opportunities for social interaction and may improve your well-being. Also, aqua-fitness and tai-chi classes are low-impact activities that are good for your health and well-being, while allowing you to interact with others.
If your health prevents you from physical activity, join a leisure group to stay active! Whether it is a cooking class, or an arts and crafts class, you will be able to reap the benefits of simply being part of a group and having a feeling of belonging and exchanges on a subject that interests you. By meeting others like you, you will have more opportunities to bond and build a strong social network.
But remember that the pandemic is not over yet and it is important to respect the public-health measures in your community.