This is Active Aging Week. While “active aging” encompasses seven dimensions of wellness (emotional, vocational, physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, environmental), what often comes to mind first is the physical dimension. How are we doing "selling" exercise to older adults?
In a recent phone conversation I had with Colin Milner (left), founder of the International Council of Active Aging (ICAA), he noted the importance of the physical aspects of active aging, but said society is looking through a distorted lens.
“Fitness is promoted as elitism. Look at the magazine racks. The images are by and large of attractive looking young people,” Milner said.
“The messages that get sent are either anti-aging or ‘super senior,’ neither of which rings true with the average 65 or 70-year-old. We have to help bridge the disconnect.”
Milner suggested that people consider a continuum of fitness, or functional levels, for older adults.
Tell me about now
For organizations looking to encourage older adults to embrace any dimension of active aging, including the physical, Milner recommended “Tell them how it’s going to impact their life and health today. Tell them they will sleep better, feel better, be able to play more with their grandkids. Listing the 10-year benefits to someone who isn’t sure they will be around in 10 years doesn’t really do much good.”
To support this, Milner pointed to an August 2012 article, “Changing Our Tune on Exercise,” by New York Times health writer Jane Brody. In the article, Brody cited research by Dr. Michelle Segar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.
Show me the journey
Milner also suggested that older adults are more motivated when they see a person’s journey.
“Don’t just show a 90-year-old marathon runner. Tell the story about how they started walking, then jogging around the block, then running 5Ks, then on to marathons.”
Program for function
When it comes to creating programming designed to encourage active aging, organizations should ask themselves, “What can we do to help people function better.” Milner asserted that by helping people have a higher level of daily function, aging services providers can increase the quality of life for older adults. That means that some programs will address people who need ongoing assistance (see continuum above), while other programs might be targeted toward those who are already active – and all functional levels in between.
Challenges to active aging
When asked about what the greatest challenges are to active aging, Milner cited two. The first challenge is what he called the “status quo mentality.”
“People are in denial. They think ‘I don’t need to do anything’ [about their health and fitness]. They are willing to wait for a magic bullet,” Milner said. “What they don’t realize is that the magic bullet is themselves, that the bullet requires effort.”
The second challenge Milner described is society’s “too slow” response to population aging.
“There seems to have been a denial that there is a market for health and fitness products for older adults.” For instance, he pointed to the lack of footwear to accommodate foot issues that might keep an older adult from participating in a regular exercise program. Lack of safe walking paths and other community amenities that could encourage older adults to keep engaged and moving are also examples of slow response.