How to Get Older Adults More Physically Active? Eliminate Barriers.

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Written by Colin Milner, CEO, International Council on Active Aging

What would happen if we were able to eliminate all the barriers to physical activity adoption and participation for older adults? Would more of them become physically active, reducing the burden that physical inactivity places on governments, societies, families and individuals? Imagine the immense change we would see in how the aging population impacts the world. To achieve this result, however, we must understand the complex barriers to physical activity in older adults, as well as the facilitators that support it.

Whether real or perceived, the barriers to physical activity adoption and participation are as diverse as the older population itself, challenging us at all levels to move to more person-centered approaches. In addition to national, regional and cultural differences, older people vary in functional levels (physical, cognitive, social), stages of life, life experiences, beliefs, values, expectations, aspirations, incomes, races, capabilities (hearing, vision, touch and speech), and health status. Understanding population differences and barriers allows us to make better decisions about the direction, design, development and delivery of our initiatives.

The following are some of the barriers and facilitators that commonly influence physical activity adoption and participation in older adults. These can be found throughout the social-ecological model, which considers the effects of social, physical, and policy environments on behavior:

  • Public policy—Barriers include few or ineffective policies and funding to support physical activity participation by older adults and confusing messages about physical activity guidelines. Facilitators include progressive urban-planning policies.
  • Community—Barriers include inaccessible facilities, access or barriers to moving about in the built-environment, and lack of local facilities and spaces for physical activity. Facilitators include walkable neighborhoods (e.g., street connectivity, pedestrian access, sidewalks), and the presence of parks and green spaces.)
  • Organizational—Barriers include lack of workplace or organizational policies to support physical activity, affordability of programs, competing priorities, design of physical spaces, and negative messages about aging. Facilitators include policies that incentivize physical activity, provide access to spaces for physical activity (indoors and outdoors) and focus on health literacy and health promotion.
  • Interpersonal—Barriers include social awkwardness, no exercise companions, competing priorities (e.g., family, friends, other activities), ageist stereotypes resulting in lack of support. Facilitators include valuing interaction with peers, and encouragement from others.
  • Individual—Barriers include physical, cognitive and mental health (e.g., physical health status, frailty, chronic pain or discomfort, chronic diseases, depression, fatigue and low energy), self-perception (e.g., values, culture, self-confidence, negative stereotypes, fear of falling and injury, unattainable expectations), lifestyle (e.g. apathy, isolation, independence, socio-economic status, enjoyment of physical activity). Facilitators include positive self-perception, valuing benefits of physical activity and lifestyle changes, and a desire for change.

When it comes to physical activity, ageist attitudes may influence whether or not older adults are active and to what degree, what kinds of activities they do, where they exercise, and whether they find supportive products, services and environments, and so on. On a personal level, individuals may doubt their ability to be active, and lack understanding about whether or not they may undertake specific activities —including if it’s safe or socially acceptable for them to do so. Support, guidance and information are key to their overcoming this barrier.

Organizations that support physical activity can create strategies designed to eliminate barriers for older adults. If you have already developed strategies to tackle these barriers, please share them with this community.

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