The positive impact of informal spousal caregiving on the physical activity of older adults

Front Public Health. 2022 Dec 16:10:977846. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2022.977846. eCollection 2022.


Introduction: Although physical activity (PA) is crucial for health, the literature is mixed about how individuals' PA decisions are affected by their spouses. To fill this gap, we examined the extent to which providing care for one spouse affects the PA of the other spouse among those aged 50 or older in the United States.

Methods: We analyzed 9,173 older adults living with their spouses or partners from the 2004 to 2016 waves of the Health and Retirement Study. To identify the causal effect of spousal caregiving on the PA of older adults, we estimated individual-fixed effects models using a two-stage least squared instrumental variable approach with spousal falls as our instrument. We also estimated the models by splitting the sample by gender and race/ethnicity to identify heterogeneous impacts of spousal caregiving on PA decisions among subgroups.

Results: We found that a one percentage point increase in the probability of providing care to spouses led to an increase in the probability of initiating moderate or vigorous PA (MVPA) by 0.34-0.52 percentage points. This effect was salient, especially among female and non-Hispanic white older adults.

Discussion: Caregiving experience might provide opportunities to learn about caregiving burdens and trigger an emotional response about the salience of an event (i.e., they need care in the future). Older caregivers might start MVPA in an effort to improve or maintain their health and avoid burdening their families for caregiving in the future. This study demonstrated spousal influence on PA. Instead of delivering PA-promotion information (e.g., the harm of sedentary lifestyle and benefits of regular PA) to individuals, risk communication and education efforts on PA promotion might be more effective considering the family context. Family events such as health shocks or the emergence of caregiving needs from family members provide windows of opportunities for intervening. Subgroup differences should also be considered in targeted interventions.

Keywords: Health and Retirement Study (HRS); United States; instrumental variable (IV); spousal caregiving; subgroup differences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Caregivers* / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Retirement
  • Spouses* / psychology
  • United States