Social support from exercise instructors in group physical activity programs for older adults


Physical activity can facilitate successful aging. Social support is associated with engaging in physical activity. A potential source of support is physical activity instructors, as they can affect the social climate and provide direct support to participants. However, little is known about older adults' expectations for social support from instructors and specific behaviours they experience as supportive. This study examined older adults' experiences with social interactions with instructors in group exercise programs, and their perspectives on instructor behaviours that support participation. Guided by interpretive description methodology, we conducted ten focus groups with N=38 older adults in group exercise programs at city recreation centers (n=29 women, 9 men; Mage=69.5 years). Responses were analyzed in light of successful aging, age-friendly cities, and social support frameworks. Instructor supportiveness was a key influence in the decision to engage in a particular program. Instructor characteristics that participants identified as supportive included: knowledge of aging and physical activity; ability to deliver individualized feedback; and including adaptations within class activities. Participants felt especially supported in classes where instructors were both caring and challenging, while remaining inclusive of different levels of ability. Participants felt less engaged in classes with instructors who controlling, versus those who respected autonomy. Some participants wanted support from instructors to address interpersonal problems among participants, but acknowledged that instructors were not always equipped to do so. Results highlight the importance of understanding instructors as a source of support, and the need for guidance on how instructors can provide effective support in this context.

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