May 2024

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Social Support Can Help Keep You Moving

Physical activity has many benefits. Walking, running, biking, swimming, lifting weights, playing sports, and moving more can add years to your life. Physical activity can improve your health, mood, and energy levels. But sometimes, the inspiration to get moving may be lacking. That’s when friends, family, and other social connections can help.

Research has shown that connecting with others, called social support, can help us get active and make changes to improve our health. Other people can help us start, continue, or increase how much we move. They can also help us make physical activity a habit.

“We still have a lot to learn about the different effects that social support can provide. But it’s long been recognized that people who have greater social support tend to be more physically active,” says Dr. Elise Rice, an NIH expert in behavioral and social science. “There are many different types of social support.”

Social support doesn’t only include people you already know. It can include groups that help get you moving, like walking or hiking clubs. It can also mean going to exercise classes, whether in person or online. There are even social media communities that provide social support for exercise.

Social support can help people of all ages and abilities get more physical activity, even those with chronic (long-lasting) health problems.

The More the Merrier

Social support can make physical activity more fun and inviting. And being active is an important goal for just about everyone.

Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of serious health conditions. These include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. Activity can boost brain health, improve sleep, and more.

Yet most American adults do not get the recommended amounts of physical activity. That’s at least two and a half hours of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, each week. Muscle-strengthening activities, like lifting weights, are also recommended at least twice a week.

Getting in that much activity might seem challenging. “But really, any amount of physical activity is better than none,” says Dr. Laurie Friedman Donze, a clinical psychologist at NIH who oversees heart health research programs. “Even short bursts of activity throughout the day can be helpful, like 5 or 10 minutes at a time.”

There are many ways that friends and others can help you get and stay active. “Companionship is part of it,” Donze explains. “Being active with someone can make physical activity more enjoyable. It can provide encouragement that keeps you going. And research has found that social support can increase self-efficacy, which is the feeling that you can do something and be successful.”

Finding physical activity you enjoy is often key to success, Donze says, “Because if you don’t enjoy it, it’ll be hard to make it into a daily or weekly habit.”

Plan Together

Making a plan with someone and sticking to it can be especially helpful. Agree to meet at certain times to get active together. Or agree to check in with each other regularly at specific times. You can share successes and struggles.

“If you make a plan to be active with a friend or family member, you’re more likely to keep that commitment. You’ll meet with them as promised,” Donze says. “It helps keep you accountable.”

Research shows that interacting with others can also help you to set and meet goals. People can help each other be physically active even if they’re not exercising together.“They can share information about important resources, like good exercise classes or nice places to walk or hike,” Donze says.

And it can help if you make it fun. One NIH-supported study found that a game-based approach helped people get active after hospital discharge. Study participants wore a step-tracking device. They received game points and positive feedback for meeting step goals. Each also chose a supportive partner, like a friend or family member, to help keep them accountable. The partners received email updates on participants’ progress. They also provided encouragement.

By the end of 12 weeks, people who had higher social engagement had a significant increase in daily steps. A follow-up study is underway to see if an online coach can boost activity even more.

Overcoming Obstacles

“Certain groups of people have specific barriers that can keep them from getting active,” Rice explains. “For instance, older adults who’ve had a major health event like a heart attack may have anxiety or concerns about being physically active. Yet activity is so important for their health and recovery.”

Some researchers have been studying how mindful practices, like tai chi, can help people with chronic conditions get active. Tai chi is an ancient mind-body practice. It involves certain postures and gentle movements. It often emphasizes breathing patterns, mental focus, and relaxation.

A team led by Dr. Gloria Y. Yeh at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center developed and tested different tai chi programs and classes. Their goal was to encourage physical activity in people with heart or lung diseases.

The team learned that people with serious health conditions often have worries that keep them from getting active. “They may avoid going to the gym because they feel embarrassed that they’re not able to do what other people can do,” Yeh says. “Or they may get short of breath very quickly, which can cause fear and anxiety.”

But Yeh and others found that being part of a group can have a positive impact. “There’s something powerful about the shared experience. They see others who have a similar medical issue who are now able to exercise. It sets an example: If they can do it, I can do that too,” Yeh explains. “The mindful movement classes are really about taking things in small steps, doing what you can to foster the self-confidence to do more.”

There are plenty of ways that social connections can help us get moving. But it’s also true that social ties are important in their own right. “

Social support in and of itself is really important and essential to health and well-being,” Rice says. See the Wise Choices box for active ways to connect with others.