Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County and ODPHP Share Tips to Get Older Adults Moving

In July 2023, ODPHP joined forces with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) to host a webinar called Increasing Physical Activity Among Older Adults: Practical Strategies from Health Departments. As part of the webinar, local health departments presented strategies they use to encourage older adults to get active. ODPHP wanted to get the whole story  so we invited Kelsey Christian, Health Promotion and Education Program Manager at Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, to share the health department’s top strategies for getting older adults moving. We also added tips for how you can apply these strategies to your work.

What do physical activity programs look like at the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County?

“We engage older adults through a range of programs, like the National Diabetes Prevention Program (NDPP) — an evidence-based, 1-year program that leans heavily on increasing physical activity and encouraging healthy eating and has been shown to lower the risk of diabetes. We also offer our GIFT program, short for ‘Get Into Fitness Today!’ — which is like an ‘NDPP light’ version. It shares the same focus on physical activity and other healthy life changes, but people can complete it in 12 weeks.”

ODPHP’s tip: Use evidence-based programs.

There’s no need to start from scratch. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Implementation Strategies for Older Adults highlights several evidence-based physical activity programs that can be adapted and applied in different settings to successfully engage older adults.

How do you use goal setting in your work with older adults?

“We always tell people physical activity doesn’t have to be training for a marathon. You don’t start running 20 miles the first week you get active. Instead, work toward your goal through a series of small steps: You might start with walking for 10 minutes after each meal, 3 days a week. And you build on that.

“It’s also really important to help older adults set their own goals. We start by asking people what matters to them: What activities do they like to do? What works for their daily lives? Then we capture those goals in an action plan, with specific steps and ways for people to adapt their activities to any situation — for example, places they can take their daily walk when it’s raining or too hot to walk outside.”

Can you name 1 strategy you use to make physical activity programs accessible to older adults?

“Before 2020, all our programs took place in person. When COVID-19 hit, we had to find a way to keep offering programs safely — so we recorded our classes and played them on the closed-circuit channels in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and community centers where our programs were scheduled. 

"We really had to shift our mindset to embrace virtual formats, but it turned out to be a game changer. We realized that by offering digital options, we can really expand our reach and remove barriers like transportation. Now we offer all our classes virtually as well as in person — and because they’re still facilitated and group-based, people get the same benefits and social interaction.” 

ODPHP's tip: Adapt programs to overcome barriers to access. 

Older adults may face a variety of barriers to getting active — like a lack of transportation to get to a gym or recreation center, neighborhoods that aren’t safe for walking, or a chronic condition or disability that makes it harder to leave their home. That’s why initiatives like the Move Your Way® campaign emphasize the adaptability of physical activity to different circumstances. 

How do trusted messengers help you reach older adults in your community?

“We’ve learned that even if you have all the answers — even if you have all the evidence that the strategies you offer in your programs will help people live healthier lives — walking into a community and expecting people to believe you isn’t going to work. 

"Especially with older adults, it’s crucial to find the people they trust and ask them for help promoting your cause. It might be the retired nurse everybody asks for health advice, the chaplain at church, or the program coordinator at the senior center. Those are your champions — your trusted messengers."

ODPHP's tip: Enlist trusted messengers.

Every cause needs people who support it. Trusted messengers can help encourage older adults to get active and build healthy habits. Professionals like health care providers often play this role — but others can, too.

What strategies do you use to motivate older adults?

“To truly engage older adults in our community, we have to focus on what’s important to them — not on what we think they should care about. Quality of life is a big factor for many of our retired community members. There’s a lot of life left to live for older adults, and they want to enjoy it. That might include taking vacations or keeping up with the grandkids, so we tweaked our messaging to focus on those aspects.

“My advice to other organizations working with older adults is to find people’s motivation and meet them where they are. Use the messaging and the format that work for them — and never assume you know better than they do. People are experts in their own lives.”

ODPHP's tip: Find what motivates your audience.

Even though the health benefits of physical activity are clear, people often struggle to get motivated to get and stay active. Older adults are no exception. That’s why Move Your Way materials highlight benefits that motivate different audiences, like reducing the risk of falls or maintaining independence for older adults. 

Categories: health.gov Blog, Spotlight