While physical activity is a key contributor to the health and well-being of older adults, many people are inactive. Neighborhood social cohesion—trust and strong ties among neighbors—can help facilitate greater physical activity. In a study that won a Bronze Innovative Research on Aging Award, researchers investigated the links between neighborhood social cohesion, leisure time physical activity, and mental health. Few studies had previously examined these relationships among older adults.
The study participants were from the 2016 National Health Interview Study, a nationally representative household study on health-related topics. This study included participants age 60 and better who responded to the study questions. These questions were related to demographic factors, physical activity, mental health, and neighborhood social cohesion. Neighborhood social cohesion was measured through four items: “People around here are willing to help their neighbors,” “This is a close-knit neighborhood,” “People in this neighborhood generally get along with each other,” and “People in this neighborhood can be trusted.”
The results showed that mental health was directly related to age, gender, length of residence, physical pain, neighborhood social cohesion, light-to-moderate leisure time physical activity, and vigorous leisure time physical activity. The study found that older adults who experience neighborhood social cohesion are more likely to participate in physical activity. In turn, this physical activity led to better mental health. While light-to-moderate activity and vigorous activity were both related to better mental health, vigorous activity more strongly predicted mental health benefits.
The authors provided several practical takeaways. In order to improve social cohesion in neighborhoods, policymakers should address features such as access to community resources, green space, and neighborhood safety. In addition, neighborhood community centers can serve as places for older adults to get to know their neighbors and service providers as well as become places that promote physical activities. Group-based local exercise programs like walking clubs may also promote both neighborhood social cohesion and increased activity levels.
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Kim J, Kim J, Han A. Leisure time physical activity mediates the relationship between neighborhood social cohesion and mental health among older adults. Journal of Applied Gerontology. (2020), 39(3):292-300.