Teaming Up for Senior Fitness: A Group-Based Approach; Physical Activity May Be the Closest Thing to a "Fountain of Youth," but Older Adults Face Unique Barriers to Participation

Article excerpt

According to the United States Census Bureau (2004), nearly 36 million people are at least 65 years of age. Furthermore, this number of aging Americans continues to grow. The leading edge of the "baby boomer" cohort turned 60 in 2006; by 2030, about one in five Americans will be aged 65 or over as the baby boomers transition into older adulthood (Himes, 2001). This change in age demographics makes it essential for us to understand the unique gerontological health risks and concerns that exist for this aging population. Associated with these risks are health-related expenses, which are high and continue to escalate. Putting aside the staggering societal cost of Medicare and Medicaid--much of which is directed toward seniors--individuals ages 65 to 69 years old spent $5,864 in 2004, those 75 to 79 spent $9,414, and those over the age of 85 spent $16,564 on out-of-pocket health care per year (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, 2004). When facing expenses such as these, older adults would do well to look for ways in which to curb healthcare spending.

One potential solution to the rising healthcare costs for the aging population may come from increasing physical activity levels. Research suggests that physical activity participation has great potential to help decrease healthcare spending by improving overall health (Pate et al., 1995). For some age-related health risks, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease, physical activity provides a proven, non-drug intervention that improves health (Blair et al., 1995; Gregg, Pereira, & Casperson, 2000). Yet, previous studies have determined that older adults tend to drop out of physical activity programs (e.g., Dishman & Sallis, 1994).

This article provides a practical, comprehensive overview of the critical yet often overlooked relationship between aging and physical activity. The article will first review the types of physical activity that have worked in previous research (from both a physiological and adherence standpoint) and subsequently offer some tools with which individuals can improve existing programs or develop successful new ones. This should assist older adults as well as practitioners interested in working with them to create programs that are motivating and fun, and, most important, that lead to improvements in physical health and mental well-being.

The Benefits of Exercise for Healthy Aging

Why should older adults participate in physical activity? It has been well documented that regular physical activity participation is associated with positive physical and psychological health (Bauman, 2004; McAuley & Rudolph, 1995; Pate et al., 1995). Epidemiological studies have demonstrated a decrease in a number of causes of mortality and morbidity for those adults who participated in regular physical activity (Blair et al., 1995). In addition, physical activity has helped counteract certain health effects of obesity in a middle-aged adult population (He & Baker, 2004), and it has the potential of reversing some of the age-related changes that occur in the cardiovascular system--hypokinetic and otherwise. Evidence suggests that exercise can positively influence other diseases that may affect adults as they age, such as cancer (Lee & Paffenbarger, 1994; Schmitz et al., 2005) and osteoporosis (Gregg, Pereira, & Casperson, 2000). Overall, the research findings strongly suggest that physical activity can have a positive effect on multiple physiological disease processes that become more common with age.

In addition to physical benefits, the degree of physical activity has been linked with mental health status in older adults. Several studies have reported lower anxiety scores in older adults who exercise regularly (Emery, 1994; King, Rejeski, & Buchner, 1998; McAuley & Rudolph, 1995). Additionally, a review of the literature on exercise and depression in older adults reveals that exercise decreases symptoms of depression (i. …