Activity programs for older adults

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Programs for older adults offer educational, social, creative, musical, 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 outcomes1.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Improved health outcomes

  • Improved mental health

  • Reduced isolation

  • Improved quality of life

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased activity levels

  • Reduced falls

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that educational, social, and physical activity programs for older adults improve mental and physical health outcomes2, 3, 4, 5, 6, reduce loneliness and social isolation7, 8, 9, and improve emotional well-being and quality of life among participants2, 3, 9, 10. Physical activity programs have been shown to improve physical health outcomes among frail older adults5. Program effects have been sustained up to 12 months after participation; additional research is needed to confirm effects after 12 months11.

Evaluations of social engagement and group activity programs (e.g., participatory art activities, museum-based social activities, membership in a community choir or faith-based community, etc.) in the U.S. and the United Kingdom indicate that such programs can benefit cognition, mental health, and emotional well-being for older adults3, 4, 12, 13 and can reduce loneliness9. Studies in the U.S. and South Korea indicate that senior center activities may foster new supportive friendships among older women who live alone14 and reduce cognitive decline among participants15.

Physical activity programs have been shown to reduce falls, improve strength, walking performance, and balance6, 10, 16. Such programs also reduce depression6, 17, 18 and social isolation16 and have other cognitive benefits for older adults19, although effects may vary by the type of exercise20. 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 conditions5, 21, 22.

A Canada-based study suggests effective physical activity programs include more group meetings along with coach training that emphasizes and integrates social connectedness strategies23. 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 communities24.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

Community and senior centers across the country offer educational, social, and physical activity programs for older adults25, 26, 27. 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 Awards28

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: North Carolina29, Florida30, Kentucky31, and Wisconsin32.

SilverSneakers is a nationwide fitness program available for adults over 65 who are enrolled in Medicare Advantage Plans (Medicare Part C) at over 17,000 locations from national gyms to community centers across the country; it also offers online workout videos for seniors who prefer to workout at home or are homebound33. Choose to Move is another example of a physical activity program in British Columbia, Canada that provides older adults with a tailored physical activity plan at no cost and helps them meet a group of other seniors34. StrongPeople programs exist in urban, suburban, and rural settings across the U.S. and are designed for midlife and older adults. Programs include community-based strength training, fitness and nutrition education, and guidance in making community-led changes to the local food and physical activity environments35.

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.

EnhanceFitness - Project Enhance. EnhanceFitness. Seattle, WA.

NCOA-Evidence-based programs - National Council on Aging (NCOA). Evidence-based programs for professionals: About evidence-based programs. 2022.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Coyle 2012 - Coyle CE, Dugan E. Social isolation, loneliness and health among older adults. Journal of Aging and Health. 2012;24(8):1346-1363.

2 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.

3 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.

4 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.

5 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.

6 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.

7 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.

8 Wick 2012 - Wick J. Senior centers: Traditional and evolving roles. Consultant Pharmacist. 2012;27(9):664-667.

9 Johnson 2020 - Johnson JK, Stewart AL, Acree M, et al. A community choir intervention to promote well-being among diverse older adults: Results from the Community of Voices trial. Journals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 2020;75(3):549-559.

10 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.

11 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.

12 Thomson 2018 - Thomson LJ, Lockyer B, Camic PM, Chatterjee HJ. Effects of a museum-based social prescription intervention on quantitative measures of psychological wellbeing in older adults. Perspectives in Public Health. 2018;138(1):28-38.

13 Fancourt 2018 - Fancourt D, Steptoe A. Community group membership and multidimensional subjective well-being in older age. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2018;72(5):376-382.

14 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.

15 Lee 2016b - Lee SH, Kim YB. Which type of social activities may reduce cognitive decline in the elderly?: A longitudinal population-based study. BMC Geriatrics. 2016;16(1):1-9.

16 Brady 2020 - Brady S, D’Ambrosio LA, Felts A, et al. Reducing isolation and loneliness through membership in a fitness program for older adults: Implications for health. Journal of Applied Gerontology. 2020;39(3):301-310.

17 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.

18 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.

19 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.

20 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.

21 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.

22 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.

23 Gray 2020 - Gray SM, McKay HA, Hoy CL, et al. Getting ready for scale-up of an effective older adult physical activity program: Characterizing the adaptation process. Prevention Science. 2020;21(3):355-365.

24 CDC-EnhanceFitness - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). EnhanceFitness.

25 YMCA-Healthy living - YMCA. Healthy living.

26 JCC-Fitness - Jewish Community Center Association (JCC), Programs and services at JCCs of North America: Health & fitness.

27 LBFE - Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly (LBFE). Flowers before bread: Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly.

28 NCOA-Excellence - National Council on Aging (NCOA). Programs of Excellence.

29 NCDHHS-DAAS - North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS).

30 FL-Elder affairs - State of Florida Department of Elder Affairs. Latest news & topics.

31 KY-Aging programs and services - Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS). Department of Aging and Independent Living programs and services.

32 WI DHS-Older adults services - Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). Services for older adults.

33 SilverSneakers - SilverSneakers. Get active, feel great.

34 CTM - Choose to Move (CTM). Being active.

35 StrongPeople - StrongPeople. Lifting people and communities to better health.