Sweating with the Oldies: Activity and Successful Aging

By Siegenthaler, Kim L. | Parks & Recreation, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Sweating with the Oldies: Activity and Successful Aging


Siegenthaler, Kim L., Parks & Recreation


The dramatic increase in human life span over the course of this century has resulted in the greater use of recreation centers by older adults (55 and over) who desire to age well. To offer effective programming for this population, leisure professionals must understand the aging process. Primary aging, the universal and gradual degenerative process, is determined by individual genetics. While factors of secondary aging, which include lifestyle choices and environment, can accelerate genetically determined aging (McGuire, Boyd &Tedrick, 1996).

The primary aging process cannot be altered; therefore, much of the research on aging seeks to identify interventions to lessen the effects of secondary aging factors. Lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly, are major determinants in increasing life expectancy (Baker & Martin, 1994).

A plethora of research published in recent years espouses the contributions of physical activity to successful aging. Several hundred publications resulted from the Network on Successful Aging, supported by the MacArthur Foundation. In addition, the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity began publishing quarterly in 1993.

And while successful aging is difficult to define, several characteristics have been identified: length of life, biological health, mental health, cognitive efficacy, social competence and productivity, personal control, and life satisfaction (Baltes & Baltes, 1990). Rowe and Kahn (1997) conceptualize successful aging through three primary components: low probability of disease and disease-related disability, high cognitive and physical functional capacity, and active engagement with life.

Research suggests that physical activity can contribute to each of these areas. Within the scope of this column, a complete review of physical activity and the literature of aging is impossible. Therefore, this "Research Update" will be limited to selected studies that offer greater application to leisure service providers.

The research efforts in physical activity and aging concentrate primarily on the effects of physical activity on biological, cognitive, and psychological aspects of aging. As used in the literature, physical activity refers to "any skeletal muscle activity that would result in a caloric expenditure above resting metabolism" (O'Conner, Aenchbacher & Dishman, 1993). In addition to structured, high-intensity exercise sessions, such as riding a stationary bicycle or walking, low-intensity activities, such as gardening, housework, or golf, also are considered physical activity (O'Conner, Aenchbacher & Dishman, 1993).

Just how much physical activity must one perform for it to be considered beneficial? Regular leisure-time physical activity (LTP) has been defined by some as participation for a minimum of 30 minutes, at least three times a week, in activities such as walking, swimming, dancing, aerobic exercise, yoga, weightlifting, and bowling (Yusuf et al., 1996). Others suggest that this recommendation is higher than necessary, particularly for individuals who have been inactive, and argue that any activity is better than nothing (Johnson, Boyle & Heller, 1995). The following studies use a variety of measures of physical activity and exercise.

Biological and Cognitive Aspects

Biological change is the most frequently examined aspect of physical activity and aging. Biological aging may result in increased incidence of injury from falls, a decrease in muscular strength, lower cardiovascular fitness, and a greater likelihood of coronary heart disease.

There is significant evidence that regular physical activity can enhance muscle and cardiovascular fitness, exacerbate weight loss and reduce body-fat content, lower blood pressure, and increase glucose tolerance and insulin responsiveness (Baker & Martin, 1994; Fiatarone et al., 1994; Kohrt, Snead, Slatopolsky & Birge, 1995; Yusuf et al. …

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