As the population ages, health officials around the world are encouraging the elderly to lead active and healthy lifestyles. But there’s more to “active aging” than exercise and fitness, according to new research.
“Thirty years ago, the elderly were not expected to be active at all — they were actually advised not to exercise as it was considered dangerous,” said Aske Juul Lassen from the University of Copenhagen’s Center for Healthy Aging.
“Playing cards was seen as a more fitting activity. Today, we are all expected to live active, healthy lives until the day we die — in good health — at the age of 90. Old age has, in a sense, been cancelled.”
But Lassen, who recently defended his Ph.D. thesis, “Active Aging and the Unmaking of Old Age,” said the elderly do a lot of things — like playing billiards — that give them an enhanced quality of life, but are not activities characterized as “healthy” by health authorities.
For his research, Lassen conducted field work in two activity centers for the elderly in Greater Copenhagen and analyzed official papers on active aging published by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union (EU).
“Playing billiards often comes with a certain life style — drinking beer and drams for instance — and I am quite sure this was not what WHO and EU meant when they formulated their active aging policies,” he said.
“But billiards does constitute active aging. Billiards is, first of all, an activity that these men thoroughly enjoy and that enhances their quality of life while immersing them in their local community and keeping them socially active.
“And billiards is, secondly, very suitable exercise for old people because the game varies naturally between periods of activity and passivity and this means that the men can keep playing for hours. Not very many old people can endure physical activity that lasts five hours, but billiards enables these men to spread their physical activity out through the day.”
According to Lassen, there needs to be a “broader, more inclusive concept of healthy and active aging that allows for the communities and activities that the elderly already take part in and that positively impact their everyday lives, quality of life, and general health.”
“It must also allow for the fact that the elderly do not constitute a homogenous group of people: Activities that for some seem insurmountable will be completely natural for others,” he added.
According to Lassen, one of the positive side effects of the activities at these centers for the elderly is that they help take their minds off their illnesses.