April 23, 2003 -- Older adults who participate in exercise programs designed to increase their overall physical activity rarely apply those lessons to how they spend the rest of their day in social and other leisure activities. A new study shows that despite increasing physical activity during the exercise program, these interventions do not alter otherwise sedentary lifestyles among the elderly.
Researchers say older adults are considered prime targets for physical activity interventions because they generally have more discretionary time, and lack of time is the most common barrier to regular exercise. The hope is that by participating in a structured exercise program older adults will gain strength and confidence that will eventually spill over to other leisure activities once the program ends and increase overall physical activity.
But researchers say few studies have looked at how older adults spend their free time and whether those activities are affected by participation in an exercise program.
The study, published in the current issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, looked at two groups of older adults who participated in two studies that involved a physical activity intervention. Researchers analyzed how the participants spent their discretionary time during and after the exercise program.
The study participants engaged in physical activities less often than sedentary activities. More than 95% of the men and women reported talking on the phone and reading as their most frequent sedentary leisure activities, and the next most commonly reported sedentary activities were visiting with friends, watching TV, and listening to the radio.
Gardening and brisk walking, which were targeted by the physical activity interventions, were the most often reported physical activities among two-thirds of the participants. Among physical activities not prescribed by the exercise programs, walking leisurely and stretching exercises were most common.
The study also found the type of sedentary leisure activities varied between men and women. The biggest difference was that women reported doing housework like vacuuming about 50% more frequently than men. More women also reported playing cards and writing letters than did men.
Despite participation in exercise programs, researchers found that the men and women in both studies did not increase physical activity in other activities not prescribed by the studies.
Researchers say participants may have thought their participation in the physical activity intervention was enough, and that it was not necessary to increase activity levels in other areas of their lives.
"Because sedentary behaviors appear to be very stable and enduring, future interventions might address this by targeting sedentary activities that can be done simultaneously with [physical activity] (e.g. walking and talking with a friend, playing electronic games or reading while on a stationary bicycle)," write researchers Rebecca E. Lee, PhD, of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, and Abby C. King, PhD, of the Stanford University School of Medicine.
"As the older adult population continues to grow in the United States and worldwide, it will be important to expand choices that encourage more physical activities and develop ways to link [physical activity] to popular sedentary activities," they conclude.
SOURCE: Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 25, no. 2, 2003.