Social support and emotions in group physical activity programs for older adults


Social support can encourage physical activity among older adults, and group exercise creates an opportunity for social connection. Understanding interpersonal actions which support physical activity and participants' emotional responses to these exchanges can have motivational implications. This study examined older adults' emotional experiences with social support in group exercise programs and their connections to motivation. As part of a larger study using interpretive description methodology, ten focus groups were conducted with 29 female and 9 male older adults (Mage=69.5 years) participating in group exercise at civic recreation centers. Emotional responses to support interactions were interpreted and analyzed. Four themes highlighted motivating impacts of emotional responses to support interactions. Positive social interactions made exercise fun. Checking on each other if they missed classes, sharing information about health, and instructors' corrections to prevent injury were experienced as compassionate. Knowing absences would be noticed was associated with anticipated guilt, motivating attendance. Seeing peers' diverse bodies and abilities, and instructor cues and options aimed at enabling success decreased anticipated shame and enhanced pride. Four themes highlighted demotivating impacts. Instructors chastising or encouraged to push beyond their limits, however, was humiliating and prompted disengagement. Frustration occurred when instructors were unresponsive to participant needs, or peers provided unwanted support. Loneliness occurred if they felt excluded from peer gatherings. Finally, accessing support was difficult if initiating interactions was anxiety provoking. Understanding how supportive attempts contribute to emotions and motivation is important for developing best practices for instructor and peer support in exercise among older adults.

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