Research has shown that increased social engagement is good for the health and well-being of seniors and can extend lifespan. But according to research out of The University of Texas at Austin, even chatting with your cashier has its benefits.

The findings published in the Journals of Gerontology Series B, showed that older adults who had more interactions with people considered peripheral social ties — not just family and friends — improved their mood. And, those with a more diverse social network get more physical activity.

“It is difficult to convince people to go to the gym or commit to work out on a regular basis. But they may be willing to reach out to acquaintances, attend an organized group event, or talk to the barista who serves them at their favourite coffee shop,” Karen Fingerman, study author and director of the university’s new Texas Aging & Longevity Center, told UT News.

“Socializing in these contexts also can increase physical activity and diverse behaviours in ways that benefit health without necessarily working up a sweat.”

More than 300 adults over the age of 65 participated in the study. Every three hours, for or about a week, they were asked to report on their day including social encounters. Participants also wore devices to keep track of their physical activity.

When they had a greater variety of social partners, they also had greater variety of activity including leaving the house, walking, talking with others, and shopping. And, in turn, they registered more physical activity and less sedentary pursuits.

“Older adults may be able to be more sedentary with their close friends and family — sitting and watching TV or otherwise lounging at home,” Fingerman noted. “But to engage with acquaintances, older adults must leave the house, or at least get up out of their chair to answer the door.”

Study co-author Debra Umberson, a sociology professor and director of UT Austin’s Population Research Center, also spoke to UT News and believes the results are significant for more than just researchers. “This new information suggests the importance of policies and programs that support and promote routine and informal social participation.”

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In France, a novel service sees postal workers playing a part in boosting social engagement among older citizens. It’s called Watch over my parents (Veiller sur mes parents) and for €20 ($30) a month, one can have the letter carrier pop in for a visit with their elder loved one. Family members receive a weekly status report about the interactions and enhanced options include a 24-hour helpline and alert system.