Activity programs for older adults

Programs for older adults offer educational, social, 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 outcomes (Coyle 2012*). 

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Improved health outcomes

  • Improved mental health

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Reduced isolation

  • Improved quality of life

  • Increased activity levels

  • Reduced falls

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that educational, social, and physical activity programs for older adults improve mental and physical health outcomes among participants (Leung 2015, Noice 2014, Hertzog 2009Cadore 2013, RAND-Shekelle 2003Glass 1999). Such programs have been shown to reduce loneliness (Cattan 2005*), protect against social isolation (Wick 2012*), and improve emotional well-being and quality of life for older adults (Leung 2015). Program effects have been sustained up to 12 months after participation; additional research is needed to confirm effects after 12 months (Hobbs 2013).

Social engagement and group activity programs (e.g., participatory art activities) can benefit cognition for elderly adults (Noice 2014, Hertzog 2009) and can decrease their risk of death (Glass 1999). Physical activity programs have been shown to reduce falls, improve strength, walking performance, and balance (Bullo 2015*, Cadore 2013, RAND-Shekelle 2003). Such programs also reduce depression (Mammen 2013*, RAND-Shekelle 2003Bridle 2012*) and have other cognitive benefits for older adults (Kelly 2014*), although effects may vary by the type of exercise (Cochrane-Young 2015*). Senior center activities can also foster new supportive friendships (Aday 2006*).

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 conditions (Gine-Garriag 2014*, Guzman-Garcia 2013*).

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 communities (CDC-EnhanceFitness).

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

Community and senior centers across the country offer educational, social, and physical activity programs for older adults (YMCA-Healthy living, JCC-Fitness, LBFE). 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 Awards (NCOA-Excellence).  

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: Connecticut (CT-Aging services), North Carolina (NC-Aging services), Florida (FL-Elder affairs), Kentucky (KY-Aging programs and services), and Wisconsin (WI DHS-Elderly services).

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.

Senior Services-EnhanceFitness - Senior Services, University of Washington, Group Health Cooperative. Project Enhance: EnhanceFitness.

NCOA-Evidence-based programs - National Council on Aging (NCOA). Center for Healthy Aging offering evidence-based programs.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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: Reprints 1257.

Glass 1999 - Glass TA, de Leon CM, Marottoli RA, Berkman LF. Population based study of social and productive activities as predictors of survival among elderly Americans. BMJ. 1999;319(7208):478–83.

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.

Wick 2012* - Wick J. Senior centers: Traditional and evolving roles. Consultant Pharmacist. 2012;27(9):664–7.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

CDC-EnhanceFitness - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exercise program for older adults improves health and catches on around the country.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

YMCA-Healthy living - YMCA. Healthy living.

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

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

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

CT-Aging services - State of Connecticut Aging Services Division - State Unit on Aging. Programs serving older adults.

NC-Aging services - North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS).

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

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

WI DHS-Elderly services - Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS). Services for the elderly.

Date Last Updated