Social Status: Can Social Participation Help Older Adults with High Risk of Major Mobility Disability?

As part of a larger study, researchers investigated how level of participation in social activities influenced the effectiveness of a physical activity intervention.

Over 1,600 adults age 70 to 89 who were at high risk for major mobility disability were recruited from across the US to participate in a physical activity or health education intervention. The physical activity intervention consisted of twice weekly group sessions and home-based activities, while the health education intervention consisted of weekly seminars on health-related topics, with the exception of physical activity topics. Both interventions lasted roughly two years and neither encouraged or discouraged social participation.

Participants were categorized as having high social participation if they reported attending at least one formal social activity per week (e.g., senior center or volunteer work), in addition to spending time with friends or family for seven or more hours per week. Limited social participation was defined as no formal social participation and less than seven hours spent with friends or family. Similar proportions of participants in each intervention reported high or limited social participation. Major mobility disability was measured by participants’ inability to walk 400 meters without rest by the end of the intervention.

As hypothesized, level of social participation influenced the effectiveness of the physical activity intervention: physical activity intervention participants who reported high levels of social participation were significantly less likely to develop major mobility disability than those who reported limited social participation. However, level of social participation had no impact on development of major mobility disability for participants of the health education intervention.

These findings add a new dimension to the importance of social activity for one’s health. Not only can isolation and loneliness have negative consequences for various aspects of health, it also limits the extent that older adults can actively work to maintain or improve physical function. The authors also noted that adherence rates were similar across levels of social participation, meaning highly social participants were not any more motivated to complete the program than socially limited participants.



Corbett DB, Rejeski WJ, Tudor-Locke C, et al. Social participation modifies the effect of a structured physical activity program on major mobility disability among older adults: Results from the LIFE study. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences (2018); 73(8): 1501-1513.

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