Could An Online Exercise Class Improve Social Connection in Older Adults?

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Finding ways to keep active and social, as an older adult, is no mean feat. Even before the pandemic, a lack of opportunities for older adults to engage in specialised classes, combined with a general feeling of intimidation that nearly every gym emits, made standard exercise classes inaccessible to many older adults, especially beginners. This is compounded by the fact that few personal trainers (PT) have experience in working with older adults, who often have complex health conditions that require PT sessions to be carefully tailored. The result is that those who would benefit most from beginning an exercise routine find it the hardest to do so.

In a post-corona world, a new online program aims to change all that — enabling older adults not only to become more active but also more social — from the comfort of their own homes.

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Walk and Talk for Your Life is an exercise course for older adults, which combines physical activity with socialising to counteract both a sedentary lifestyle and loneliness. First developed in Canada (1), the class offers a combination of informal socialisation, exercise, and structured discussions around a health topic, such as nutrition for older adults, tips to improve sleep, manage stress, and ways to become more active.

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In March, following the outbreak of coronavirus, the course moved to an online platform.

Walk and Talk places equal emphasis on the social and exercise components of the course. This is because socialising has been shown to be a key pillar of health and in fact, loneliness may be more damaging to health than a sedentary lifestyle and obesity (2). Studies have shown that prolonged loneliness can be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day (2). Adults who suffer from loneliness have higher rates of premature death as loneliness is associated with higher blood pressure, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease (3). With the likelihood that levels of loneliness and depression have increased due to the lockdown, courses such as Walk and Talk and other styles of loneliness interventions are now more important than ever.

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In 2019, the in-person version of Walk and Talk, based at a community centre in Walthamstow, London, was studied by researchers from Middlesex University. They found that over a 10-week period, participants enrolled in the course, reduced their feelings of loneliness by 22% and depression fell by 33%, compared to a control group (4). These findings are significant because a meta-analysis published in 2018 concluded that without a dedicated social component to the activity, group exercise classes alone do not meaningfully reduce loneliness (5).

Following the 2019 study, Walk and Talk continued to host their classes in-person until March, when the course transitioned online. Moderate intensity shadow boxing replaced the group walk which had featured as part of the in-person course, and the socialising component became a larger priority. The group’s online course is currently being studied by researchers at St. Mary’s University to determine if loneliness and depression can be reduced with this online group-exercise approach.

While there are some limitations that accompany online exercise classes, such as internet access and technical or physical disability, there remains a growing segment of older adults who do possess the necessary skills and equipment to participate. Moreover, Walk and Talk reports that their online classes are attracting a more geographic, socio-economic, and ethnically diverse group of participants compared to their in-person classes.

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With the likelihood that more adults are feeling socially isolated, emphasising social connection, community, and inclusion are values that any online activity should consider as part of their programme’s structure.

In the fight against loneliness, which consistently affects over 60% of Walthamstow, London residents (4), the model of emphasising and valuing social connection can be one strategy other fitness classes can emulate. As lockdown restrictions ease, older adults may feel even less comfortable attending in-person gym-based classes and, therefore, this online model may help fill the gap. If so, it may be possible that older adults are more enabled, post-corona virus, to increase their physical activity and improve their wellbeing online.

The coronavirus lockdown has raised our awareness to just how important social connections and relationships are to our overall health. Hopefully, this awareness can help organisations, which promote health, reprioritise how they deliver their services to encourage social connection.

- Nicholas Bender MSc , CSCS, CPT is a personal trainer and nutritionist that specialises in working with older adults and is the founder of Walk and Talk for Your Life — Walthamstow.

Images by: Robin Sinha @robin_sinha

Personal trainer, nutritionist, and health coach specialised in working with older adults.

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