Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Play hard and live long
Bingo can keep you healthy
Elderly people can cast off their trainers and head for the bingo hall with impunity.
Research shows social activities, such as playing games or going shopping, are just as good for their health as physical exercise.
They say the findings have important implications for public health policy and show the need for more investment in transport and day centres which help people get out and about.
The researchers, led by Professor Thomas Glass of Harvard University, studied more than 2,800 people over 65 years old.
The researchers did not measure differences between various social and physical activities.
Writing in the British Medical Journal, the researchers say: "Social activities may involve a broad range of goals, including leisure and enjoyment, reinforcement of social status and sense of worth, social engagement and productivity."
They add that social activities can give people a sense of meaning and reinforce relationships.
A spokeswoman for Age Concern said the research was encouraging, but showed the need for good quality services to be made available to help people go out, particularly those in isolated, rural areas.
"It is important not to lay the emphasis in one place and to ensure people keep their minds active."
Robina Lloyd of Arthritis Care said people with acute arthritis often felt lonely and cut off.
"Social interaction is very important, whatever form it might take. Social isolation can lead to depression and mental illness.
"People have told us they feel less pain when they are more active and they feel they are more in control," she said.
Internet boosts contacts
"With a chronic condition, they can feel it is controlling them and once they take things into their own hands by doing some activity, however small, they take back some control."
Help the Aged also welcomed the study, saying: "Humans are social animals from the cradle to the grave. Being cut off from social activities can be isolating and depressing at any age.
"Help the Aged welcomes this holistic approach to health."
It said the internet was helping elderly people - or "silver surfers" - keep in touch with friends and family and find out about leisure activities.
"The internet helps people who cannot get out and about and can have health benefits," said a spokeswoman.
There has been a huge boom in the number of people over 50 accessing the internet in recent months.