The Ability of Older Adults to Maintain Strength and Activity
Throughout the aging process, the human body begins to undergo numerous physiological changes. Some of these changes are involuntary such as graying hair, decline in skin elasticity and increase in body fat while changes like the ability to maintain strength and stay active are commonly viewed as voluntary choices that older adults are no longer interested in doing. Physical activity is an important factor to a healthy lifestyle and remains important throughout the lifespan of an individual. A common ageist stereotype about older adults that I will explore through four research articles is that older adults are weak and unable to stay active and athletic. In addition, it is my own opinion that choosing to participate in exercise is a choice among all stages of aging in life. While it is recommended to maintain health, there are many different reasons people of any age opt out of this; however, this stereotype has been placed upon older adults in particular.
Research conducted by Ball et. al (2013), aimed to explore the efficiency of a 10-week exercise program for older adults. Throughout the exercise program, the 808 participants in the study had an average age of 65.4 years. The methods of this study collected strength, flexibility and balance measures before and after the 10 weeks. Once or twice a week these participants would meet in a 20-person class and perform the same strength, flexibility and balance exercises. If the class met once a week, the participants would perform exercises on their own one more time that week. The goal of this study was to see whether or not performing these exercises twice a week would increase the participant’s fitness in these three domains. (Ball et. al, 2013)
The results of this study indicated that there was momentous improvement in strength, flexibility and balance from the pre-evaluation to the post-evaluation. Interestingly, participants that were younger than 60 years old had a considerably larger improvement than those who were older than 60 years old. (Ball et. al, 2013) This study would refute the stereotype regarding older adults inability to be strong and active because the results indicated that there were improvements in strength, flexibility and balance in these 10 weeks. While some older adults may choose to decrease their amount of strength exercises for various reasons as they age, they are able to gain back strength when they return to an exercise regimen. One could argue that these results could be similar to someone of any age who decreased their amount of exercise for a period of time before returning back, regardless of their biological age.
In research by Wilkin and Haddock (2011), they conducted a study to find out more about the functional fitness of older adults to determine if they are aging successfully. The participants in this study consisted of 108 older adults from senior living facilities that reported being healthy and living independently. Each participant was evaluated based on his or her senior fitness test result that is reliable to assess balance, gait speed and functional capacity through various exercises. In addition, it is important to note that this study evaluated other aspects of aging such as social and mental well-being. The purpose of this study was to assess the participant’s physical fitness and compare these findings to how they should be performing at this age. (Wilkin & Haddock, 2011).
The results of this research found that these older adults were deemed average or above average for functional fitness (Wilkin & Haddock, 2011). The findings in this study refute the stereotype that older adults are weak or not athletic because a majority of these participants had positive results indicating that they would not fit into this ageist stereotype. In addition, these results show that older adults are capable of completing various exercise activities and have maintained their ability to be athletic and strong in older age. To further refute this stereotype, these older adults were living independently and reported being healthy, which also refutes this stereotype.
When considering why this stereotype is so common, it is crucial to consider why some older adults are not physically active or athletic and why this stereotype exists. Self-neglect among older adults is a serious public health matter that has become increasingly common and this could be affecting older adults desire to exercise. With the older population growing, this issue will only become more important in the future. Due to this rising concern, research has been conducted to find out if self-neglect is associated with lower levels of physical function. In this study, there were 1,094 biracial and socioeconomically diverse participants’ ages 65 and older that were reported by friends and family to the Chicago Department on Aging members for possible self-neglect. (Dong, de Leon & Evans, 2009)
To assess the participant’s physical fitness, they were engaged in balance and gait physical performance tests to gather information about their lower-extremity function. The results of this study indicated that increased self-neglect severity was correlated with decreased levels of physical function. (Dong et al., 2009) This study would support the stereotype that older adults are weak and not athletic because the results indicate that these participants had lower physical function; however, this stereotype neglects any plausible reasoning as to why older people may decrease or stop exercising such as the reason presented in this article.
When discussing this stereotype and whether there is support for it, one must consider whether or not older adults who are not exercising are consciously making this choice due to unsafe conditions outside of the home. Rantakokko et. al (2010), conducted a study to determine if there was an association between fear of moving outdoors and unmet physical activity. This study consisted of 589 people aged 75 to 81 that participated in home interviews as well as examinations in the research center. Examples of outdoor limitations that were examined throughout this research were dangerous traffic crossroads, few places to stop and rest or poor road conditions. These fears from the participants and lack of physical activity were self-reported through a questionnaire. The results of this study suggested that people who reported feeling insecure about the outdoor conditions had a willingness to increase their physical activity but did not have the opportunity to do so. (Rantakokko et. al, 2010) This study refutes this stereotype because it indicated that these older adults did not lack motivation or willingness to increase their physical activity but they were lacking a safe outdoor environment to exercise.
In conclusion, the stereotype that older adults are unable to maintain their strength and stay athletic as they age is not true. There are other things to consider when contemplating the fitness level of this age group. Similar to any other age group, exercise is apart of a healthy lifestyle and is recommended; however, some individuals lack accessibility to a safe environment to accomplish this successfully. Research suggests that once older adults are given the opportunity to perform in a 10-week exercise program they are able to improve their strength and balance rather than remaining weak, as this stereotype would suggest. In addition, research points out the increasing demand to address self-neglect in the aging population, especially with the growth of this population. Self-neglect could support this stereotype, however; in my experiences with older adults who I have suspected self-neglect, it is not that they are unable to perform exercise but rather it is an issue associated with their mental well-being. In my opinion, if all older adults had access to a safe environment where they could work on their physical fitness; this stereotype would not be as common. Rather than an unwillingness to be physically active, many older adults do not have the resources they need to achieve a healthy fitness level.
Ball, S., Gammon, R., Kelly, P. J., Cheng, A., Chertoff, K., Kaume, L., & … Brotto, M. (2013). Outcomes of Stay Strong, Stay Healthy in Community Settings. Journal of Aging And Health, 25(8), 1388-1397. doi: 10.1177/089826431507318
Dong, X., de Leon, C. M., & Evans, D. A. (2009). Is Greater Self-Neglect Severity Associated With Lower Levels of Physical Function?. Journal Of Aging and Health. 21(4). 596-610. doi: 10.1177/0898264309333323
Rantakokko, M., Iwarsson, S., Kauppinen, M., Leinonen, R., Heikkinen, E., & Rantanen, T.(2010). Quality of Life and Barriers in the Urban Outdoor Environment in Old Age. Journal Of The American Geriatrics Society. 58(11), 2154-2159. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.2010.03143.x
Wilkin, L., & Haddock, B. (2011). Functional Fitness of Older Adults. Activities, Adaption &Aging, 35(3), 197-209. doi: 10.1080/01924788.2011.596759