Why Activity Theory Is an Important Key to "Successful" Aging

4 min read
Learn about Activity Theory of aging, and why scientists think it's the key to "successful" aging.
Learn about Activity Theory of aging, and why scientists think it's the key to "successful" aging.

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First things first: What does successful aging mean, anyway? It’s true that the idea of “aging well” feels a bit subjective—the approach and mindset of one person might look a little different from someone else. But from a scientific POV, we define healthy aging as supporting your body and wellbeing in a way that allows you to live your life the way you want to, for as long as possible. And that means building a foundation of healthy habits, no matter what life stage you’re currently in.

Most of us probably already know that balanced nutrition is a huge part of this—filling your daily diet with a spectrum of nutrients, and ideally taking a quality multivitamin and protein powder to help fill gaps. (Part of this is also recognizing that your nutrient needs evolve as you age.) But scientists have also zeroed in on another potential key component of healthy aging: something called Activity Theory of Aging. (1)

What is Activity Theory?

While the name might imply that it’s all about exercise or moving your body, Activity Theory also refers to keeping busy and maintaining social activities as you age. The earliest studies on this phenomenon (which first came into play in the ‘70s) correlated this definition of an “active lifestyle” with greater life satisfaction in older people—something that researchers have only continued to prove out over time. (2,3)

In one study on Activity Theory published in 2014, for example, researchers found that adults who participated in discretionary activities—that is, extracurricular activities of their choosing—over the course of 8 weeks reported a more positive outlook on life and their overall wellness. And if you’re at all familiar with Blue Zones—aka the regions of the world where people reportedly live the longest, most healthful lives—you might recognize that Activity Theory is something Blue Zone residents live out every single day: They lean on friendships and family, they engage in moderate physical activity, and they prioritize activities that make them happy. (1)

Defining an “active social life”

It’s worth noting that on the flip side, scientists have linked social isolation and loneliness to a negative impact on our quality of life as we age. This underscores the impact regular social interactions can have—for everyone, but especially for older adults. (4)

But why? Scientists suspect that having a support system as we age allows us to better cope and work through challenges as we enter later life. It may also have a domino effect on our broader wellbeing: In a study published last year in the Journals of Gerontology, researchers found that older adults who prioritized social engagement with their broader community also tended to be more physically active, and reported better emotional wellness. (5)

Choose your own adventure

Of course, we’d be remiss not to mention the more literal definition of Activity Theory: That is, the importance of physical activity as you age. Scientists agree that practicing regular, moderate exercise plays a sizable role on the aging process—many longitudinal studies have tracked the impact on both the physical health and mental health of older adults. (6)

What does that look like in practice? Let us count the ways: It might be long walks around the neighborhood, or hitting the yoga studio a few times a week. Or maybe you prefer to jog, or take a cardio dance class. The point? Do what you’d like, so long as it inspires you to move around a little.

And that’s really the beauty of Activity Theory in a nutshell: It’s both deceptively simple and incredibly non-prescriptive. The idea is to enjoy the activities and relationships that make you happiest, as regularly as possible—and you’re the best judge of what that means to you.


  1. Winstead, Vicki, et al. “The Impact of Activity Interventions on the Well-Being of Older Adults in Continuing Care Communities.” Journal of Applied Gerontology, vol. 33, no. 7, 2014, pp. 888–911., doi:10.1177/0733464814537701.
  2. Lemon, B. W., et al. “An Exploration of the Activity Theory of Aging: Activity Types and Life Satisfaction Among In-Movers to a Retirement Community.” Journal of Gerontology, vol. 27, no. 4, Jan. 1972, pp. 511–523., doi:10.1093/geronj/27.4.511.
  3. Knapp, M. R. J. “The Activity Theory of Aging An Examination in the English Context.” The Gerontologist, vol. 17, no. 6, Jan. 1977, pp. 553–559., doi:10.1093/geront/17.6.553.
  4. Shankar, Aparna, et al. “Social Isolation…in Older Adults.” Health Psychology, vol. 36, no. 2, 2017, pp. 179–187., doi:10.1037/hea0000437.
  5. Interacting with more people is shown to keep older adults more active. (2019, February 20). Retrieved from Science Daily
  6. Daskalopoulou, C., Stubbs, B., Kralj, C., Koukounari, A., Prince, M., & Prina, A. (2017). Physical activity and healthy ageing: A systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. Ageing Research Reviews, 38, 6–17. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2017.06.003


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