The secrets of highly active older adults: An interview with the author Thea Franke

September is buzzing with activity at the CHHM research institute. We are currently collecting data for Phase 2 of ASAP Sr. (read more about that research program HERE), and our team members’ publications are hot off the presses. For the first in a series of blogs highlighting our most recent articles, we interviewed Thea Franke, Project Manger for the Walk the Talk research program, about her article: The secrets of highly active older adults.

Hi Thea, can you give us a little bit of background about your work?

Well, there has been a lot of research on how the built environment encourages physical activity (via perceived safety, access to transportation, sidewalks and connectivity etc.) but not too much on community-dwelling older adults who defy physical activity norms and maintain a high (above average) level of physical activity. As you may be aware, although physical activity helps individuals manage many chronic diseases associated with aging, it tends to decline with age.

Only 15% of Canadians aged 20-79 are meeting the minimum physical activity recommendation of 150 minutes per week (based on the results from a 2007-2009 Statscan study). Needless to say, physical inactivity is a serious public health concern, especially with Canada’s aging demographic.

To address this, I analyzed the transcripts of 27 in-depth qualitative interviews with community dwelling older adults in Metro Vancouver. I looked at the similarities and differences between the 10 highly active participants and the 17 remaining participants.

Thea highly active blog

Why focus on highly active older adults?

Health researchers often pay the most attention to ‘what’s wrong’; in my subject area this means issues (i.e. obesity, dementia, frailty etc) associated with physical inactivity. Our team disrupted this norm by adopting a ‘strengths based perspective.’ We were curious about the factors that contribute to high levels of physical activity and mobility in later life, and what we could learn from them. To put it simply, what keeps active older adults active?

What were some of your most significant findings?

We identified three major factors that facilitate physical activity in highly active older adults:

  • Resourcefulness: engagement in self-help strategies such as self-efficacy (believing in their ability to be active), self-control (incorporating activity into their daily routine) and adaptability (adapting to life “scenarios” in order to maintain activity levels);
  • Social connections: the presence of relationships (friend, neighborhood, institutions) and social activities; and
  • The built and natural environments: features of places and spaces that support high levels of physical activity.

It is important to note that these factors are mutually reinforcing. For example, the social, built and natural environments strengthen and foster resourcefulness and vice versa. There’s a great quote from one of our participants that illustrates the intersection of these themes:

“…this class starts at nine-thirty but with the way the buses run, I can either be late or early. So I choose to be early and do little chores beforehand, go to Pharma Drugs, [grocery store] Green Grocers, whatever. And come in here still early, and chat with friends, we’ve known each other for many years, the same classes. Do the exercise. Go to the library or whatever wasn’t open before may be open. Sometimes I walk home. And the walk home is about two miles. And if it’s a nice day and my feet are cooperating I walk.” (Elizabeth, 72)

So interesting! How can I read more?

The full citation for the article is : Thea Franke, Catherine Tong, Maureen C. Ashe, Heather McKay, Joanie Sims-Gould, The Walk The Talk Team. 2014. Journal of Aging Studies. The secrets of highly active older adults. 27: 398409.

Do you have anything else to add?

Yes, I just want to acknowledge my amazing team that are dedicated to:

ONE, identifying factors that most effectively support and maintain independence, health and mobility across the lifespan, and

TWO, insuring policy makers, urban and social planners, and community collaborators have a better understanding of these mobility determinants in order to make effective change.

I couldn’t have written this article without their contributions! And most importantly, I would like to acknowledge and thank the older adults that volunteered their time to participate in this study!

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