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Physical activity improves social functioning among older adults

Shvedko A, Whittaker A, Thompson J, Greig C. Physical activity interventions for treatment of social isolation, loneliness or low social support in older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2018; 34: 128-137.

Review question

      What are the effects of physical activity interventions on loneliness, social isolation, and social support in community-dwelling older adults?


      The absence or poor quality of social relations has detrimental effects on mental health, negatively impact quality of life, and leads to loneliness.

      Older adults are considered a particularly vulnerable population due to the general decline of social contacts following retirement.

      Physical activity is a health behaviour that can influence social health through a number of mechanisms and behaviour change techniques.

      This systematic review examines the effect of physical activity on loneliness, social isolation, and social support in community-dwelling older adults.

How the review was done

      Review authors conducted a detailed search of five research databases in February 2017.

      No restrictions were applied to the publication period and language.

      A total of 3,899 articles were retrieved from the initial search, of which 38 were included in this review.

      This review was funded by a Russian government-sponsored scholarship program “Global Education,” Moscow School of Management “Skolkovo” (Grant number 35). The authors declare no known conflicts of interest.

What the researchers found

      Half of the included interventions had a social interaction component as well as a physical activity component. Intervention components included health education, social support, sleep hygiene, and recreational activity, and social facilitation by trained ambassadors.

      Physical activity interventions mainly consisted of aerobic training in 14 studies and resistance training in six studies. Intervention length varied between six weeks and one year, with the majority lasting for 12 weeks.

      Although the effect of physical activity on social support and social networks was found to be non-significant, a small significant positive effect was found for social functioning.

      Authors found that effective physical activity interventions for social functioning were generally those delivered by medical healthcare professionals among older adults suffering from health conditions.

      Five out of 13 physical activity interventions with significant results for psychosocial outcomes had an aerobic component of over 30 min a day. The most common mode of aerobic exercise was supervised walking.


      Despite the observations made in this review, there is limited evidence that effective interventions are specific to particular settings, population sub-groups, intensities, or types of activity.

      Findings suggest that exercise has positive effects on social functioning by enhancing self-esteem and self-worth through group-based physical activities.


Systematic review
A comprehensive evaluation of the available research evidence on a particular topic.

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