Community-based social support for physical activity

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

Community-based social support interventions for physical activity combine physical activity opportunities and social support to build, strengthen, and maintain social networks that encourage positive behavior changes. Interventions can also include education, group or individual counseling, or plans tailored to individual needs. Examples of community-based social support interventions include walking groups, setting up an exercise buddy system, and making contracts, goals, or physical activity plans with others1, 2, 3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

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

  • Increased physical activity

  • Improved physical fitness

  • Improved health outcomes

  • Improved mental health

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that community-based social support interventions for physical activity increase physical activity1, 2, 4, 5, 6 and physical fitness among adults1, 2. Such interventions have also been shown to provide health benefits such as reductions in indicators of cardiovascular risk, including reduced blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), and total cholesterol2, 4, and depression symptoms2.

Social support for physical activity increases physical activity among older adults, especially when interventions include family support7. Middle-aged women enrolled in a weight loss program are more likely to lose weight when they experience social support from friends and family8.

Community-based social support interventions for physical activity with a duration of at least 6 months are more effective than shorter interventions. Interventions that focus on older adults are more effective than those for younger adults6. Some studies suggest that such interventions are more effective when designed for both genders6, while others suggest that tailoring interventions for women increases effectiveness5. Interventions led by lay people appear as effective as those led by professionals6.

Community-based social support interventions have been shown to increase physical activity among adults in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods3, 4. Residents of low income communities with more physically active social networks are more likely to meet recommended physical activity guidelines than residents with less active social networks9. Interventions to increase perceptions of safety may increase participation in walking groups and other community-based social support interventions in socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhoods10.

Overall, community-based social support interventions may not increase physical activity and physical fitness among adolescents11 or children3. However, adolescents with low levels of perceived social support from family and friends appear more likely to engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors than peers with higher levels of social support12. Additional evidence is needed to determine effects on adolescents and children.

Community-based social support interventions for physical activity are considered cost effective13.

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

Community-based social support interventions for physical activity are implemented throughout the country. Examples of community wide interventions include Detroit’s Walk Your Heart to Health14, Huntsville’s We Walk Huntsville15, Oregon Walks16, and Community Healthy Activities Model Program For Seniors17. Individuals can also set up their own walking group, buddy system, or workout partnership. 

Implementation Resources

LHC-Rockeymoore 2014 - Rockeymoore M, Moscetti C, Fountain A. Rural childhood obesity prevention toolkit. Leadership for Healthy Communities (LHC), Center for Global Policy Solutions, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; 2014.

America Walks-LC - America Walks. Learning center (LC): Resources for professionals, policy makers, and advocates.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 CG-Physical activity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity.

2 Hanson 2015 - Hanson S, Jones A. Is there evidence that walking groups have health benefits? A systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2015;49(11):710-715.

3 Cleland 2012 - Cleland CL, Tully MA, Kee F, Cupples ME. The effectiveness of physical activity interventions in socio-economically disadvantaged communities: A systematic review. Preventive Medicine. 2012;54(6):371-380.

4 Schulz 2015 - Schulz AJ, Israel BA, Mentz GB, et al. Effectiveness of a walking group intervention to promote physical activity and cardiovascular health in predominantly non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic urban neighborhoods: Findings from the Walk Your Heart to Health intervention. Health Education & Behavior. 2015;42(3):380-392.

5 Bock 2014 - Bock C, Jarczok MN, Litaker D. Community-based efforts to promote physical activity: A systematic review of interventions considering mode of delivery, study quality and population subgroups. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2014;17(3):276-282.

6 Kassavou 2013 - Kassavou A, Turner A, French DP. Do interventions to promote walking in groups increase physical activity? A meta-analysis. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2013;10(1):18.

7 Smith 2017a - Smith GL, Banting L, Eime R, O’Sullivan G, van Uffelen JGZ. The association between social support and physical activity in older adults: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2017;14(1):56.

8 Kiernan 2012 - Kiernan M, Moore SD, Schoffman DE, et al. Social support for healthy behaviors: Scale psychometrics and prediction of weight loss among women in a behavioral program. Obesity. 2012;20(4):756–64

9 Child 2017 - Child S, Kaczynski AT, Moore S. Meeting physical activity guidelines: The role of personal networks among residents of low-income communities. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2017;53(3):385-391.

10 Kwarteng 2018 - Kwarteng JL, Schulz AJ, Mentz GB, et al. Does perceived safety modify the effectiveness of a walking-group intervention designed to promote physical activity? American Journal of Health Promotion. 2018;32(2):423-431.

11 van Sluijs 2011 - van Sluijs EMF, Kriemler S, McMinn AM. The effect of community and family interventions on young people’s physical activity levels: A review of reviews and updated systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2011;45(11):914-22.

12 Vander Wal 2012 - Vander Wal JS. The relationship between body mass index and unhealthy weight control behaviors among adolescents: The role of family and peer social support. Economics & Human Biology. 2012;10(4):395–404.

13 Roux 2008 - Roux L, Pratt M, Tengs TO, et al. Cost effectiveness of community-based physical activity interventions. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2008;35(6):578-88.

14 Detroit WYHH - Detroit! Walk Your Heart to Health (WYHH). Improving our health one step at a time: Become part of the walking movement in Detroit.

15 WWH-Group walks - We Walk Huntsville (WWH), Healthy Huntsville. Join us for a group walk!

16 Oregon-WG - Oregon Walks. Walking groups (WG).

17 CHAMPS - Community Healthy Activities Model Program for Seniors (CHAMPS). University of California San Francisco.