Until an injury temporarily sidelined him recently, Burt Abramowitz, 81, and his 76-year-old workout partner had a standing commitment three times each week. They’d work out at the Gold’s Gym in Rockville, then go out to eat afterward, usually at the Dunkin’ Donuts or Silver Diner. Abramowitz jokes that sometimes the food would negate any benefit from the workout, but the food was never the point. It was the camaraderie he cherished.
Abramowitz’s experience mirrors that of an active senior population, where the gym has become a place to build not just muscle but community.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have linked strong social relationships to a longer life span. In one British Medical Journal study, researchers wrote that social activities may be as effective as fitness activities in lowering the risk of death. They followed more than 2,800 people over the age of 65 for a 13-year period. The researchers concluded that active people were more likely to be alive at the end of the 13-year period. But they also noted that social activities “conferred equivalent survival advantages compared to fitness activities.” According to the researchers, this means that “activities that entail little or no physical exertion may also be beneficial.”
In 2010, three researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 148 studies from 1990 to 2007 that examined the connection between social isolation and mortality. They found that “individuals’ experiences within social relationships significantly predicted risk of mortality.” In other words, people with stronger social relationships were likely to live longer. Addressing the direction of the effect — whether socialization has a positive effect on health or whether people who are sick simply have fewer social relationships — the authors said that the data “provides stronger evidence for the influence of social relationships on risk for mortality rather than vice versa.” Based on their meta-analysis, researchers found that in its influence, social isolation compares with risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, and it might even exceed other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.
The problem is that social connections, the ties that bind us to our community, slowly weaken as we age. Friends and family retire, some move away, and others die. A retirement community is a salve for some. But for seniors who age in place, this means living alone in a changing community as familiar faces disappear.
That’s why many find the health club a good place to strengthen social bonds. It’s a natural gathering spot, pulling people together to engage in a common activity. And working out with a partner is a commitment; you’re more likely to show up if you’re meeting someone. That’s what Abramowitz found so appealing. “The motivation for Jay and me was the camaraderie,” he says. “It was the friendship, someone to kibbitz with.”
Nick Crossley, a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester, has researched community-building in health clubs. He says that these places are particularly effective because they encourage socialization on a routine basis, often with the same people, even if by chance. “People become familiar with each other that way,” Crossley says.
Studies have borne out the role that fitness centers play in maintaining social bonds in seniors. In one study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, which conducted focus groups of participants in a fitness program for older adults, one woman said that “being able to socialize with people and to laugh helps the body become better and the mind stronger.” The researchers noted the strong sense of cohesion among members, “a dynamic process reflected by the tendency of a group to stick together and remain united in pursuit of its objective.”
Bob Ray, 82, works out at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington and likes to motivate others in the room. “I encourage everyone around me as they work out. I’m the mayor of the exercise room. I like to talk a lot and be social, and the gym is a great time to do that,” Ray says. Sometimes the conversation can be a welcome diversion from exercise or from life outside the club.
The post-workout recovery offers another opportunity to socialize. It’s easy to meet because everyone’s already in the same place. In his report, “(Net)working Out: Social Capital in a Private Health Club,” Crossley noted that the intimacy of a gym’s sauna, “where people are often squashed together, sitting in the eye line of others,” makes conversation almost a necessity.
Stan Ginsberg, 73, works out at a D.C. area LA Fitness and says that after his water aerobics class, the group often heads right to the hot tub, where it’s easy to socialize. “We talk about that day’s class, but we usually like to talk about things outside, like our travels.” Before one member of Ginsberg’s class moved recently, the group threw a going-away party.
In Abramowitz’s case, the socializing afterward was just as important as the workout. “The quality time after, when we’d go out to eat, was something we really looked forward to,” he says. “I wouldn’t have seen my friend three times a week if it wasn’t for the gym.”
Opipari is a former track coach and founder of Persuasive Matters, a legal writing consulting company. You can reach him at email@example.com.