Aug. 29, 2018

What social supports keep older adults physically active, researcher wants to know

Meghan McDonough looks for practical solutions for everybody, including vulnerable populations
Meghan McDonough hopes to turn her research into practical applications to help older adults be more physically active.

Meghan McDonough hopes to turn her research into practical applications.


When a friend wants to be more active to improve their health, it’s only natural that we want to offer our support. But what is the best way to help? Very little is understood about how to help people give and get the support they need to be more active. With an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Dr. Meghan McDonough, PhD, Faculty of Kinesiology, will begin investigating the social supports that adults 55 and older have that keep them physically active.

Physical activity provides important mental and physical health benefits, and helps adults to maintain their independence as they age. Strong social ties help prevent depression and loneliness.

“We want to look at group activities and see how older adults help each other,” says McDonough. “Do they offer or receive a ride to the recreation centre? Or do they provide emotional support such as encouragement during a class? This is what we want to understand more about.”

The project will build on McDonough’s previous research looking at how feeling socially connected is associated with being active and having positive feelings about participating in activity. She hopes to turn the research into practical applications to help adults who are 55-plus be more physically active, including those who may face barriers.

McDonough will recruit participants from community centres in Calgary with help from The City of Calgary (Calgary Recreation and Calgary Neighbourhoods). She expects to begin the research project in the fall with assistance from students.

“We are recruiting from four areas of Calgary to gather multiple perspectives on activity,” says McDonough. “We also want to include vulnerable populations, such as those with lower socio-economic status, newcomers and those living alone.”

McDonough is looking for 90 participants to take part in the study. To understand how people think about their social supports, she will interview those who work with older adults, and people who do and do not take part in group activities.

“I expect we’ll see a variety of barriers across populations, and maybe identify barriers we haven’t seen in the past,” says McDonough.

Potential barriers may include social isolation, disability or lack of transportation. “While group physical activities can provide opportunities to build social connections, it doesn’t necessarily work that way. We need to know more about how to facilitate positive connections and effective social support in community physical activity programs,” says McDonough.

Raynell McDonough, strategist for Calgary Neighbourhoods at The City of Calgary (and Meghan McDonough’s sister), is helping to connect Meghan with community stakeholders. Raynell works with older adults and local organizations in a community-wide initiative called the Seniors Age-Friendly Strategy, to prepare Calgary for an aging population.

“The project is of interest to us, because we want to understand how some populations may benefit from a different approach to taking part in activity,” she says. “We are in a position to help with this project and eventually learn from the outcomes of the research. For us, this is an opportunity to have a city where there is equity, where everyone can age well and be socially engaged.”

The co-investigators are Dr. Jennifer Hewson, PhD, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, and Dr. Peter Crocker, PhD, University of British Columbia. Also collaborating on the project are Dr. Ann Toohey, PhD, Brenda Strafford Centre on Aging, University of Calgary; Raynell McDonough, Calgary Neighbourhoods, The City of Calgary; and Stephanie Won and AJ Matsune, Calgary Recreation, The City of Calgary.