Strong relationships can help older adults stay active, a new study has revealed, with social interactions identified as one of the biggest factors in reaching exercise guidelines.
The research, carried out by the University of Hawaii, found those in a healthy relationship with a life partner or with a network of close friends were significantly more likely to engage in regular physical activity. As part of the study, researchers examined how individual, interpersonal, organisational and community factors influenced the physical activity of adults aged between 65 and 74. And for the 1,193 study participants, relationships were by far the biggest influencer, with social connections impacting the amount of physical activity they engage in and hence impacting their risk of health issues such as depression and cognitive decline.
“These results are important because they reinforce that relationships are key to influencing positive health behaviors, including physical activity,” the study’s co-author Catherine Pirkle said. “Our findings echo other studies that have demonstrated the importance of connectivity in the ageing process across different cultures.”
Relationships can be a wonderful part of life for a person of any age. When they’re going well, people feel loved and valued and it bolsters their mental health and overall wellbeing. However, when there are tensions, struggles and conflicts, people can be left feeling hopeless, helpless and out of control. Megan Frost, projects coordinator at Relationships Australia NSW, said it can be harder to engage in activity of any kind when relationships aren’t healthy, whether it be going shopping, going to church or undertaking exercise.
“For many of us, keeping physically active requires motivation, determination and willpower,” she said. “We need a reason to keep active and need encouragement from others to maintain an active regime. If we aren’t supported, or are discouraged from exercising because it’s assumed we’re too frail or might injure ourselves, we can quite quickly lose confidence.”
This is concerning for older people as a lack of exercise can lead to further problems including an increased risk of mental illness and physical health issues. Psychiatrist Neil Jeyasingam said having a regular workout regime, whether it be weights or just walking, can do wonders for a person both mentally and physically.
“As an old age psychiatrist, I have access to all the most powerful drugs and interventions in the areas of cognition and mental health,” he said. “But, there’s nothing more effective than exercise. It’s bizarrely good. It extends life expectancy, reduces the risk of dementia, improves mood and reduces the risk of depression.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of exercise it is either, as long as it’s being done regularly. For people who have trouble with their joints and can’t walk for long periods, they can use spring-loaded handgrips that they can press in their hands. It’s a simple, but effective movement.”
As the study found, Jeyasingam said having a partner is one of the best motivators for exercise, and Frost agrees. She said the act of doing something, whether it be exercise or another fun activity, with a partner is incredibly beneficial.
“Overall, any activity we do, whether physical, social, environmental or educational, is made easier when we are doing them together, giving us that beautiful feeling of ‘being with’ each other,” Frost said.
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