Exercise Classes Work Out for Older Adults in Surprising Ways

A recent study of four different exercise classes showed that physical fitness isn’t the only benefit that such courses can provide. Participant surveys and brain scans showed significant psychosocial impacts.

Although social benefits may not be the main motivation for engaging in exercise classes, a recent study of four different exercise classes showed that physical fitness isn’t the only benefit provided by such courses. The 247 older adults in this study were assigned to classes in dance, strength/stretching/stability, walking, or walking plus (which also included nutritional supplements). Each of these classes met for an hour, three times a week for six months.

At the end of the exercise classes, participants reported statistically significant increases in social support and decreases in stress and loneliness. Those participants with higher levels of stress and loneliness at the outset showed the largest decreases. Further analysis suggested that greater decreases in loneliness were explained by greater reductions in stress. The researchers found no differences between the class types in producing these psychosocial impacts.

Brain scans were conducted on all participants, but evidence suggests that the improvements seen above were not associated with changes in brain volume in the regions examined. However, a few interesting brain observations were made at baseline, where larger amygdalas (a structure associated with fear, aggression, and anxiety) were associated with lower perceived social support and greater loneliness. Those with larger amygdalas at baseline also showed a greater reduction in loneliness, which appeared to be a result of reduced stress. Having a larger prefrontal cortex (a structure associated with executive control and balancing emotional and non-emotional information) at baseline was also associated with a greater reduction in loneliness, and this also appeared to be due to the influence of reduced stress.

The authors conclude that, “Exercise programs, regardless of exercise mode, may be effective vehicles for reducing loneliness in older adults.” In this case, brain differences provided some insights, but the psychosocial changes observed were not accompanied by corresponding changes to the volume of relevant brain structures.


Ehlers DK, Daugherty AM, Burzynska AZ, et al. Regional brain volumes moderate, but do not mediate, the effects of group-based exercise training on reductions in loneliness in older adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2017. DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00110


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