New Ideas for Promoting Physical Activity among Middle Age and Older Adults: Physical Activity Can Lead to Successful Aging

By Godbey, Geoffrey; Burnett-Wolle, Sarah et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, September 2007 | Go to article overview

New Ideas for Promoting Physical Activity among Middle Age and Older Adults: Physical Activity Can Lead to Successful Aging


Godbey, Geoffrey, Burnett-Wolle, Sarah, Chow, Hsueh-Wen, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Obesity is increasingly associated with the incidence of disease and premature death in the 55+ age group. This trend has profound social and financial implications that warrant immediate attention, and it will become more significant as the senior population burgeons at a time when physical activity has been stripped from almost every aspect of life. To combat the health care costs associated with a sedentary lifestyle, there is a growing interest in promoting exercise among mature and older adults. The effectiveness of many programs, however, is limited by outdated ideas that misdirect efforts. Recent advancements in gerontology provide guidance that is likely to improve these programs. Specifically, there is now a better understanding of what "successful aging" means and of what aspects of life have the greatest potential for increasing physical activity in later life. This article documents these developments and new interdisciplinary efforts to provide services and products that increase physical activity among the older segments of the population.

New Challenges

Getting middle age and older adults physically active is becoming more difficult due to the confluence of two revolutions. First, this age group is experiencing unprecedented growth. While 21 percent of the United States population was age 55 and over in 2000, by 2030 it is likely to be 30 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Second, physical activity has been removed from nearly every aspect of life, and the vast majority of adults do not get enough exercise. The federal government defines adequate exercise as moderate activity for 30 or more minutes, five times a week, or vigorous activity for 20 minutes or more, three times a week (Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics [FIFARS], 2004). Approximately 70 percent of people age 45 to 64 and 80 percent of people age 65 and over do not meet these criteria (FIFARS, 2004). Furthermore, 25 percent of adults in the United States do not engage in any physical activity at all (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2001).

These revolutions, along with changes in diet, have resulted in obesity rates that have reached "epidemic proportions" (FIFARS, 2004, p. 36). In 1962, 18 percent of Americans age 65 and over were obese and 55 percent were overweight. By 2002, 32 percent were obese and 73 percent were overweight. Women, Hispanics, and blacks are the most at risk for becoming obese.

Obesity now rivals or surpasses the threat to health and life posed by cigarette smoking (FIFARS, 2004; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2003). In addition to adversely affecting the quality of life, obesity is a contributing factor to many physical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, various cancers, asthma, and osteoarthritis. Ultimately, obesity is thought to reduce "healthy, disability-free" life by as much as 30 years and overall life expectancy by 20 years (USDHHS, 2003, "The effects of overweight and obesity," [paragraph] 3).

In addition to the social cost, obesity poses a serious economic encumbrance for the nation. Disease and disability associated with overweight and obesity accounted for 9.1 percent of health care costs (as much as $78.5 billion) in 1998 (CDC, 2006). These costs are born by health care consumers as well as the public. People age 65 and older typically spend 21 percent of their income on health care; it is the largest personal expense in middle and later life (FIFARS, 2004). The poor and near poor spend even more. Although consumers bear a heavy financial burden, taxpayers, through the Medicare and Medicaid programs, pay 65 percent of health care costs. While health care costs accounted for 14 percent of the gross domestic product in 2001, the aforementioned revolutions are expected to increase this figure to 18 percent by 2012 (USDHHS, 2003).

A New Understanding of Successful Aging

The failure to attract and retain middle age and older participants in exercise programs is attributable in part to misconceptions about successful aging. …

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