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Activity programs for older adults

Health Factors: Diet & Exercise Family & Social Support
Decision Makers: Local Government State Government Healthcare Professionals & Advocates Nonprofit Leaders
Evidence Rating: Scientifically Supported
Population Reach: 10-19% of WI's population
Impact on Disparities: No impact on disparities likely

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Programs for older adults offer educational, social, or physical activities in group settings that encourage personal interactions, regular attendance, and community involvement. Activity programs are a potential means to reduce social isolation; isolation among older adults is associated with poorer health outcomes (Coyle 2012). 

Expected Beneficial Outcomes

Improved health outcomes
Improved mental health
Reduced isolation
Improved quality of life
Increased activity levels
Reduced falls

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that educational, social, and physical activity programs for older adults improve mental and physical health outcomes among participants (Leung 2015, Noice 2014, Hertzog 2009Cadore 2013, RAND-Shekelle 2003Glass 1999). Such programs have been shown to reduce loneliness (Cattan 2005), protect against social isolation (Wick 2012), and improve emotional well-being and quality of life for older adults (Leung 2015). Program effects have been sustained up to 12 months after participation; additional research is needed to confirm effects after 12 months (Hobbs 2013).

Social engagement and group activity programs (e.g., participatory art activities) can benefit cognition for elderly adults (Noice 2014, Hertzog 2009) and can decrease their risk of death (Glass 1999). Physical activity programs have been shown to reduce falls, improve strength, walking performance, and balance (Bullo 2015, Cadore 2013, RAND-Shekelle 2003). Such programs also reduce depression (Mammen 2013, RAND-Shekelle 2003Bridle 2012) and have other cognitive benefits for older adults (Kelly 2014), although effects may vary by the type of exercise (Cochrane-Young 2015). Senior center activities can also foster new supportive friendships (Aday 2006).

Available evidence suggests that physical exercise programs can also improve cognitive function and enhance physical function and activity for frail older adults or those with chronic health conditions (Gine-Garriag 2014, Guzman-Garcia 2013).

Activity programs are feasible and low cost initiatives when implemented in existing community and senior centers. Such programs have been shown to be sustainable and replicable in many urban and rural communities (CDC-EnhanceFitness).


United States

Community and senior centers across the country offer educational, social, and physical activity programs for older adults (YMCA-Healthy living, JCC-Fitness, LBFE). The National Council on Aging (NCOA) supports senior center programs and promotes outstanding practices through its annual National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) Programs of Excellence Awards (NCOA-Excellence).  

Many states also have aging services departments or programs that consolidate information about potential activity programs, senior centers, and social services available for older adults, for example: Connecticut (CT-Aging services), North Carolina (NC-Aging services), Florida (FL-Elder affairs), Kentucky (KY-Aging programs and services), and Wisconsin (WI DHS-Elderly services).

Implementation Resources

CDC-Belza 2007 - Belza B, Prevention Research Centers-Healthy Aging Research Network (PRC-HAN). Moving ahead: Strategies and tools to plan, conduct, and maintain effective community-based physical activity programs for older adults. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); 2007. Accessed on December 1, 2015
NCOA-Evidence-based programs - National Council on Aging (NCOA). Center for Healthy Aging offering evidence-based programs. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Senior Services-EnhanceFitness - Senior Services, University of Washington, Group Health Cooperative. Project Enhance: EnhanceFitness. Accessed on March 10, 2016

Citations - Description

Coyle 2012* - Coyle CE, Dugan E. Social isolation, loneliness and health among older adults. Journal of Aging and Health. 2012;24(8):1346–63. Accessed on September 22, 2016

Citations - Evidence

Aday 2006* - Aday RH, Kehoe GC, Farney LA. Impact of senior center friendships on aging women who live alone. Journal of Women & Aging. 2006;18(1):57–73. Accessed on November 24, 2015
Bridle 2012* - Bridle C, Spanjers K, Patel S, Atherton NM, Lamb SE. Effect of exercise on depression severity in older people: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2012;201(3):180-5. Accessed on December 1, 2015
Bullo 2015* - Bullo V, Bergamin M, Gobbo S, et al. The effects of pilates exercise training on physical fitness and wellbeing in the elderly: A systematic review for future exercise prescription. Preventive Medicine. 2015;75:1-11. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Cadore 2013 - Cadore EL, Rodriguez-Manas L, Sinclair A, Izquidero M. Effects of different exercise interventions on risk of falls, gait ability, and balance in physically frail older adults: A systematic review. Rejuvenation Research. 2013;16(2):105-114. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Cattan 2005* - Cattan M, White M, Bond J, Learmouth A. Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: A systematic review of health promotion interventions. Ageing and Society. 2005;25(1):41–67. Accessed on December 7, 2015
CDC-EnhanceFitness - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exercise program for older adults improves health and catches on around the country. Accessed on November 30, 2015
Cochrane-Young 2015* - Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015;(4):CD005381. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Gine-Garriag 2014* - Giné-Garriag M, Roqué-Fíguls M, Coll-Planas L, Sitjà-Rabert M, Salvà A. Physical exercise interventions for improving performance-based measures of physical function in community-dwelling, frail older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2014;95(4):753-769. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Glass 1999 - Glass TA, de Leon CM, Marottoli RA, Berkman LF. Population based study of social and productive activities as predictors of survival among elderly Americans. BMJ. 1999;319(7208):478–83. Accessed on February 4, 2016
Guzman-Garcia 2013* - Guzmán-García A, Hughes JC, James IA, Rochester L. Dancing as a psychosocial intervention in care homes: A systematic review of the literature. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2013;28(9):914-924. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Hertzog 2009 - Hertzog C, Kramer AF, Wilson RS, Lindenberger U. Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development: Can the functional capacity of older adults be preserved and enhanced? Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 2009;9(1):1–65. Accessed on February 5, 2016
Hobbs 2013 - Hobbs N, Godfrey A, Lara J, et al. Are behavioral interventions effective in increasing physical activity at 12 to 36 months in adults aged 55 to 70 years: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Medicine. 2013;11:75. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Kelly 2014* - Kelly ME, Loughrey D, Lawlor BA, et al. The impact of exercise on the cognitive functioning of healthy older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ageing Research Reviews. 2014;16:12-31. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Leung 2015 - Leung P, Orwell M, Orgeta V. Social support group interventions in people with dementia and mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review of the literature. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2015;30(1):1-9. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Mammen 2013* - Mammen G, Faulkner G. Physical activity and the prevention of depression: A systematic review of prospective studies. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2013;45(5):649-657. Accessed on March 10, 2016
Noice 2014 - Noice T, Noice H, Kramer AF. Participatory arts for older adults: A review of benefits and challenges. The Gerontologist. 2014;54(5):741-753. Accessed on March 10, 2016
RAND-Shekelle 2003 - Shekelle P, Maglione M, Mojica W, et al. Exercise programs for older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2003: Reprints 1257. Accessed on May 20, 2016
Wick 2012* - Wick J. Senior centers: Traditional and evolving roles. Consultant Pharmacist. 2012;27(9):664–7. Accessed on November 24, 2015

Citations - Implementation

CT-Aging services - State of Connecticut Aging Services Division - State Unit on Aging. Programs serving older adults. Accessed on December 10, 2015
FL-Elder affairs - State of Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Latest news & topics. Accessed on February 5, 2016
JCC-Fitness - Jewish Community Center Association (JCC), Programs and services at JCCs of North America: Health & fitness. Accessed on February 16, 2016
KY-Aging programs and services - Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS). Department of Aging and Independent Living programs and services. Accessed on February 24, 2016
LBFE - Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly (LBFE). Flowers before bread: Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly. Accessed on March 10, 2016
NC-Aging services - North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS). Accessed on March 14, 2016
NCOA-Excellence - National Council on Aging (NCOA). Programs of Excellence. Accessed on March 9, 2016
WI DHS-Elderly services - Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). Services for the elderly. Accessed on May 24, 2016
YMCA-Healthy living - YMCA. Healthy living. Accessed on March 9, 2016

Page Last Updated

October 21, 2015

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