How does social support impact body image experiences of older women in physical activity programs?


As we age, we experience physical changes that may impact body image. Older women in particular may find these changes difficult due to cultural ideals of youthfulness directed at women. This study examined social interactions and support in group physical activity and how older adult women perceive them to impact body image. Fourteen women aged 65 and older, who participated in physical activity classes at a city recreation centre, participated in a semi-structured interview. The study was guided by interpretive description methodology. Interviews and analysis were informed by social support and positive body image theories. Women reported that being in a context with a diversity of abilities and body types helped them feel comfortable with their own body. They often compared themselves to others in relation to function that helped to reframe negative thoughts and recognize their own ability. However, comparisons contributed to negative perceptions at times. Engaging in discussions about body function and health with peers often promoted positive perceptions and facilitated coping with functional or health difficulties. It was noted that the absence of discussion of appearance in these groups indirectly communicated body acceptance. Other participants communicated comfort, understanding, and acceptance through humour, demonstrating that support was available if needed, and providing empathy for common experiences. Instructors promoted positive body image by providing physical challenges, celebrating successes, and providing modifications or feedback. Findings suggest the social experiences in group exercise may support forming positive body perceptions, and reframing negative thoughts about the body among older adult women.