The Athlete's Way

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Mobility Is Key to Maintaining Social Networks As We Age

Staying mobile and socially connected are key to well-being at every age.

Maintaining a social network has long been associated with staying healthy, happy, and living longer. A new study from Finland has found that mobility is the magic ingredient for maintaining social activity and cognitive function while lowering mortality among older men and women. Until now, the connection between mobility, social connections, and mortality had not been studied.

It is common sense that if someone is immobile that he or she will quickly become isolated and disconnected. Hopefully, these findings will serve as an inspiration for you to stay healthy, mobile, socially active—and to help your friends and loved ones do the same.

The new study titled, “Do mobility, cognitive functioning, and depressive symptoms mediate the association between social activity and mortality risk among older men and women?” was published November 2013 in the European Journal of Ageing.

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Of all other potential mediators in an aging population, a lack of mobility was most closely linked to the odds of becoming depressed. On the flip side, optimism and better cognitive functioning—which led to social connectivity and an upward spiral of well-being—were most strongly linked to someone's mobility.

Katja Pynnönen, a Ph.D. student from the University of Jyväskylä, Department of Health Sciences in Finland explains, "The health-enhancing influences of social activity may be partly explained by better mobility among persons who are socially active. Moreover, social activity may maintain mobility and thus decrease mortality risk, as many social activities also include physical activity."

Social Connection Improves Well-Being and Mobility

The social activities observed in the Finnish study included such things as: cultural activities, participating in organizations, traveling, physical activity in groups, dancing etc. When participating in these collective activities, individuals feel a sense of belonging to a group, and of being liked and accepted. As simple as that may sound, the need for social connection and feeling worthy of love and belonging is fundamental to our well-being at every stage of life.

Brené Brown has done extensive research on the benefits of social connection and the importance of feeling worthy of love and belonging. If you have not seen her TED lecture yet, please take some time to watch it here.

Prosocial behavior and helping others was another specific example of productive social activity that the Finnish researchers took into account. This Finnish study adds more scientific proof to the physiological and cognitive benefits of social connectivity and loving-kindness towards others.

The social capital built through altruism and acts of kindness creates an upward spiral of well-being. Other studies have linked this pro-social upward spiral to improved vagal tone, reduced cortisol, and increased oxytocin.

The most noteworthy finding of this study is that mobility is the often overlooked x-factor for making productive social activity possible. A lack of mobility was found to create a downward spiral of isolation, depression and mortality. Again, this is common sense. But, it’s helpful to have a scientific study remind us of the importance of maintaining our own mobility through healthy daily lifestyle choices and assisting others who are not mobile to stay socially connected.

"Good cognitive functioning and having less depressive symptoms seemed to be prerequisites for social activity. Thus, it is important to recognize and take into account those older people who have memory problems and are melancholy, and may need extra support to participate in social activities," says Pynnönen.

Conclusion: Social Activity, Mobility, Cognitive Function, and Longevity are Intertwined.

Social activity and mobility are directly linked to well-being throughout our lifespan. This study confirmed that mobility, cognitive functioning, and depressive symptoms mediate the association between social activity and mortality risk in older Finnish men and women.

The association between social networks and mortality is directly linked to a person's level of mobility. Good cognitive functioning and having less depressive symptoms are intertwined with the ability to maintain social activity via good health and mobility. Making healthy daily lifestyle choices that include physical activity and social connectivity will inherently help to maintain mobility into old age.

If you'd like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Please follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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