Developing a model of social support for group physical activity programs for older adults


Social support (SS) and physical activity (PA) enhance well-being, but often decline with age. Group PA programs create opportunities to address both needs. Furthermore, SS can facilitate PA, and PA can provide a meaningful context for social connections. We developed a conceptual model of SS for engagement in group PA programs for adults age 55 and older. Following interpretive description methodology, we used qualitative data from (1) observations of 16 group PA classes, (2) focus groups with 38 group PA participants, (3) interviews with 38 older adults not currently participating in group PA, and (4) interviews with 6 practitioners working with older adults. Themes addressed that understanding older adults' priorities for physical and social outcomes is important for addressing individual support needs and wants. Programs can facilitate developing supportive relationships by: having regularly schedule classes and programs that are sustained over time; including diverse participants; choosing accessible locations and facilities; offering a variety of activities at a range of levels; keeping groups small; and clearly communicating program information using modes that reach diverse populations. Supportive PA instructors: address individual needs; develop caring connections; facilitate socializing; are positive, energetic, and encouraging; provide modifications; encourage change talk; and manage conflict. Supportive peers: communicate and respond to needs; initiate interactions with newcomers; recommend PA opportunities; participate together; provide practical assistance, particularly transportation; and check up on each other. Understanding perceptions of effective SS from multiple stakeholders' perspectives can inform program design and instructor training to enhance support and participation.

Acknowledgments: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant