Physical activity is crucial to our health as we age. As the Chief Medical Officers said in 2019: “if physical activity was a drug, we would refer to it as a miracle cure, due to the great many illnesses it can prevent and help treat”.
Yet, despite its importance, nearly a quarter of UK adults in and approaching later life (loosely defined as those aged 50-70) do less than 30 minutes of exercise a week. Alongside this, across all ages, the proportion of Disabled people doing less than 30 minutes a week (42.5%) is almost double that of non-Disabled people (22.9%). COVID-19 has also had an impact on levels of physical activity, with a significant increase in inactivity levels amongst those who are older and those with impairments.
What barriers do people face when they look to participate in physical activity?
Ageing Better commissioned research interviewing 54 people aged 50-70 – many of whom had one or more long term conditions or disabilities – to better understand why some people struggle to become more active.
For many, physical activity was seen as a way to maintain independence and improve the quality of their lives as they age. This is often about preventing poor health in the future. Despite an almost universal understanding that taking part in physical activity is an important way to maintain and improve health, our research uncovered a range of complex practical, psychological and emotional barriers to being more active.
One major barrier is related to knowledge and understanding. Many participants had a limited view of what constitutes physical activity and were not aware that everyday activities such as shopping or gardening count towards moving more. There was also a general lack of awareness of the importance of strength and balance training, especially as we get older.
Other major barriers included common life events such as becoming a carer for a family member or friend, or being diagnosed with a long-term condition, both of which can lead to people having less time and less confidence to engage in physical activity.
Whether people identified as “sporty”, “inactive” or even “lazy” further influenced how people perceived potential barriers, with many people feeling ‘set in their ways’. Our research also found that role models were important, with the opportunity to socialise alongside physical activity seen as appealing by many participants.
What can we do about it?
There are a large range of different approaches that can be taken to support older people, including older Disabled people to become more active as we emerge from the pandemic. There is a need to focus on both the personal and environmental reasons that people don’t exercise. Ultimately this requires strong coordinated action across organisations.
National government needs to prioritise physical activity as part of the pandemic recovery. They need to work with local government, local health systems, the fitness and leisure sector and the voluntary and community sector to fund, create and adapt approaches that enable a diverse range of people aged 50-70 to be more physically active.
Local government needs to adopt a whole systems place-based approach to supporting people to move more. This will differ by location but must be grounded in the lived experience of those they are trying to support.
Local health systems should ensure that physical activity is embedded into emerging plans for Integrated Care Systems and work to ensure that the NHS can work in partnership with other sectors to identify, connect and support those aged 50-70 to be active.
The fitness and leisure sector also has a key role to play. This will involve ensuring their offer to consumers is inclusive and welcoming and that staff are trained to support people aged 50-70 (and in particular those with health conditions or identify as Disabled). As Get Yourself Active’s recent research shows much more can and needs to be done by the fitness and leisure industry to widen participation and appeal to older and Disabled people.
Now’s the time for action to improve physical activity levels, so that we can all enjoy our longer lives.
Interested in the work the Centre for Ageing-Better undertake? You can learn more here.