When Older People Interact with Weak Social Ties, They Get Up and Move

Karen L. Fingerman, Meng Huo, Susan T. Charles, and Debra J. Umberson

Introduction

Decades of research demonstrate the importance of social relationships on well-being in later life. Most of these studies have focused on the impact of close ties – family and friends – on physical and emotional health.

Diverse relationships that extend beyond close ties may lead to different types of behaviors that contribute to well-being in older adults. Indeed, individuals who are socially integrated participate in diverse activities such as attending church or doing volunteer work. Taking part in a wide variety of activities with more distant social contacts may lead to greater levels of physical activity and enhanced well-being. In contrast, older peoples’ interactions with close ties (such as a spouse) may focus on being at home and remaining sedentary.

Only a few studies have explored the impact of these peripheral or weak social ties, such as acquaintances and service providers, on health. Those studies have relied on self-reports of physical activity and social engagement over prolonged periods of time, and some scholars suspect that memory biases may make those findings less accurate. In other words, because they are relying on memory, people may not accurately report how much physical activity they engaged in.

This brief reports on a study that breaks new ground by measuring the associations of physical activity and mood with both close social ties and weak social ties throughout the day. The authors collected information from 313 adults aged 65-90 about their current behaviors in real time (known as Ecological Momentary Assessments) every three hours while awake over a five-to-six-day period. During these three-hour blocks, the participants reported their social encounters and behaviors. The research participants also wore an accelerometer to provide objective measures of their physical activity and proportion of time sedentary during the study period, thus compensating for memory bias in reporting.

Key Findings

  • Older people who engage with a greater variety of social ties throughout the day are more physically active and less sedentary during the times when they are socially engaged. (See figure.)
  • Older people report a greater variety of activities when they are engaged with a greater variety of social ties throughout the day.
  • Weak ties account for this greater physical activity–-people have to get up out of their chair and out of the house to interact with weak ties. On the other hand, encounters with close ties improve mood more.

Engaging with diverse social ties is associated with greater activity throughout the day

Illustration of daily activities from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. for a participant who scored near the average for daily social engagement. Orange blocks represent the number of encounters with different types of ties; green blocks represent the number of sets of behaviors this participant engaged in every 3 hours. The pies represent the percentage of time the participant spent sedentary in each 3-hour block. Blue lines represent continuous activity counts assessed by the accelerometer.

Policy Implications

Sedentary behavior puts people at high risk for poor health and mortality while physical activity enhances health and well-being. Despite the clear benefits of physical activity, programs to motivate older adults to be more physically active often fail. This research shows the importance of encouraging older people to engage in social events and social activities, which are more appealing than exercise programs for most people. Engaging in more social events and activities in turn could increase their physical activity and improve well-being.

Reference

Fingerman, K.L., Huo, M., Charles, S.T., & Umberson, D.J. (2019). Variety is the spice of late life: Social integration and daily activity. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

Suggested Citation

Fingerman, K.L., Huo, M., Charles, S.T., & Umberson, D.J. (2019). When older people interact with weak social ties, they get up and move. PRC Research Brief 4(5). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/2146.

About the Authors

Karen L. Fingerman (kfingerman@austin.utexas.edu) is a professor of human development and family sciences and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin; Meng Huo is a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences; Susan T. Charles is professor of psychological science and nursing science at the University of California-Irvine; and Debra J. Umberson is professor of sociology and director of the Population Research Center, UT Austin.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Social Networks and Well-being in Late Life: A Study of Daily Mechanisms (R01AG046460; K. L. Fingerman, Principal investigator). Infrastructure support was provided by grant P2CHD042849 awarded to the Population Research Center (PRC) at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.


  •   Map
  • Population Research Center

    University of Texas at Austin
    305 E. 23rd Street / RLP 2.602
    Mail Stop G1800
    Austin, Texas 78712-1699
    512-471-5514