Older Americans say exercise important, but still don't do it

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Getting Americans who are middle-aged and older to use their bodies more requires advocates of physical activity to understand their minds better.

A new survey indicates many people like the idea of exercise, but only in principle.

The RoperASW survey for AARP said 63 percent of Americans ages 50-79 consider exercise the best thing they could do for their health. Eighty-nine percent believed people their age should exercise at least three times a week for 20-30 minutes each time, and 71 percent thought moderate activity is very important.

That's almost literally what the doctor ordered. The U.S. Surgeon General says people should be at least moderately active for 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week.

But it's apparently not what many seniors are doing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one-third of Americans over 50 do no physical activity.

Other CDC data show that 65 percent of people ages 45 to 64 are somewhat active but do too little to meet the Surgeon General's recommendations.

Encouraging these people to be more active is a challenge for people who run exercise programs. The experts are responding with new attempts to understand older peoples' minds. The Roper study, done for AARP, is one example.

''One of the things we have been doing is to find out what it is about exercise that really stands in the way,'' said Teresa Keenan, project manager for research in the advocacy group for Americans ages 50 and older.

The survey AARP commissioned found older people could be divided into six groups based on their attitudes toward exercise. Three of the groups normally exercise. But the rest don't exercise, feeling they are too busy, are not up to the challenge, or just don't care. The survey had two samples of 1,000 respondents each, and each sample had a margin of error of 3 percent.

Those in the busy group, labeled the ''hectics,'' were 12 percent of the total. Hectics know they should exercise, but say they can't find the time. ''The trick is to integrate physical activity into their time,'' Keenan said.

CDC researchers and other experts have looked into this. They suggest people at least make minor changes in their living habits, such as taking the stairs instead of riding the elevator, or parking at the edge of the shopping mall lot and walking to the stores, instead of parking in the closest space.

Those who the Roper research-ers termed ''unmotivated'' were 12 percent of the total. Unmotivateds have various excuses, including the cost of gym membership or the lack of people with whom to work out.

Federal agencies and other organizations are looking at expanding community activities such as group walks. One of the goals is to find ways to make exercise more fun.

''Making fitness fun is the key to success for everyone in our business,'' said Sandy Coffman, who has a health club consultancy, Programming for Profit, in Bradenton, Fla.

Fun for participants requires work from activity organizers, Coffman wrote in The Journal on Active Aging, a professional publication for seniors exercise programs. Staff members must be outgoing people who look like they enjoy their jobs, she said. And programs must have play and variety -- ''a pool class could hold a parade in the water.''

Some people simply may think they are incapable of exercise. The survey termed this 13 percent ''the infirm.'' However, although some were ill, others simply felt they were too out of shape to even start an exercise program.

Other researchers say people can test themselves to see what shape they are in. The separate article in the journal on aging listed ways in which people can do it.

The standards used in the assessment, developed by researchers at California State University, Fullerton, were based on health data from more than 7,000 people in 21 states.

One measure is the number of times a person can stand up and sit down in a chair within 30 seconds. Being able to do fewer than 8 unassisted stands was a sign that a person lacks lower body strength.

The infirm may be harder to encourage to exercise, because they may need a doctor's prescription for what they should and should not do. But training can work wonders even on those who have health problems.

Todd Roberts, a 52-year-old Dallas landscaper, has been doing physical therapy for a bad knee as a way to put off knee replacement surgery. Besides strengthening exercises, he works on balance to coordinate the muscles around the knee.

''Any time you see results, it's fun, and to be able not to have that knee replaced makes me look forward to go to exercise, without a doubt,'' Roberts said.

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