The impact of physical activity on loneliness and social isolation for older adults

The impact of physical activity on loneliness and social isolation for older adults

It’s been well-established that physical activity like walking, yoga and going to a fitness center has many health benefits for older adults. These include better sleep, less anxiety and reduced risk of heart disease, along with many other benefits that may improve overall health.

But what if physical activity could help older adults feel less alone, even if they were exercising alone?

Researchers from AARP Services Inc., UnitedHealthcare and OptumLabs set out to investigate this question, focusing on two areas:

  • Could physical activity help to reduce social isolation and/or loneliness?
  • Could physical activity promote higher levels of resilience, purpose or positive perception of aging?

There’s a continued emphasis on supporting older adults as they work to find meaning, purpose and resilience as they age. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may have been harder to find opportunities to exercise, which contributed to greater feelings of social isolation and loneliness.

The results of the study point to strong evidence that physical activity can help older adults feel less alone and socially isolated, as well as positively increase their feelings of resilience and purpose.

Researchers found that:

  • Moderate and high physical activity were associated with significantly reduced rates (15%-30% lower) of severe loneliness and social isolation
  • The same level of physical activity was also associated with improved feelings (27%-150% higher) of resilience, purpose and a positive perception of aging

The level of physical activity came from the number of days a week someone would exercise (even walking or gardening), not the intensity of the exercise itself. Moderate to high levels ranged between three to four days a week or five-plus days a week, respectively.

“Continuing to be physically active over time may be one of the best things older adults can do for themselves to promote healthy aging—mental, physical, and emotional,” said Shirley Musich, Senior Research Director at OptumInsight and one of the co-authors of the study.

There are many ways older adults can get the exercise they need. For UnitedHealthcare Medicare members with Renew Active® – the gold standard in Medicare fitness programs for body and mind – resources are available to help keep members on track with their health and wellness. These include:

  • Access to over 22,000 gyms and fitness locations – or, if they prefer to work out at home, access to thousands of on-demand workout videos and live streaming fitness classes
  • Customized online workouts from Age Bold to help prevent falls
  • Membership costs paid for online or in-person social clubs as part of Element3™ Health

To find UnitedHealthcare plans that offer Renew Active and more, visit