When older adults are able to workout with same-age peers, they are more likely to keep participating in an exercise class, according to a new study at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. Interestingly, same-gender exercise groups didn’t seem to motivate participants to come back; only age seemed to matter.
“This study points to the importance of age-targeting, but perhaps not gender-targeting, when developing these programs,” said UBC kinesiology professor Dr. Mark Beauchamp, the study’s lead author.
Most older adults are less physically active than they should be, with activity levels found to be lowest in the Americas. In Canada, for example, fewer than 15 percent of people 60 and over meet international physical activity recommendations.
The team of researchers had been brainstorming ways to keep people active into old age, as inactivity can increase risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, arthritis and other physical limitations that affect one’s overall quality of life.
Based on previous studies, the researchers were aware that older adults prefer to exercise within their own age group. In the new study, they wanted to investigate whether these preferences expressed by older adults in surveys would actually lead to greater adherence in practice.
The study involved 627 adults (average age of 72) who participated in a 12-week exercise class at YMCA locations in Metro Vancouver. Participants also had the option to extend participation for another 12 weeks afterward.
Participants were divided into three workout groups: One group was consistent in age and gender, while another was consistent in age but not gender. Both of these groups were led by older adult instructors who had been recruited and trained for the study. The third group worked out in a typical YMCA class that was open to all ages and genders, led by a YMCA instructor.
Over the 24-week period, participants who exercised with same-age peers attended an average of 9.5 more classes than those placed in the mixed-age group. Participants in the mixed-age group averaged 24.3 classes. Participants in the same-age, mixed-gender group averaged 33.8 classes, and participants in the same-age, same-gender group averaged 30.7 classes.
The researchers’ prediction that same-gender classes would result in even greater attendance didn’t turn out to be true. This is an important finding, as it could free facilitators from the cost of providing separate classes for each gender.
The researchers tried out additional strategies to strengthen participants’ commitment to the exercise class. For example, each participant received a custom T-shirt that identified them as members of a group. They were also given opportunities to socialize over coffee following class.
“All of this together points to the power of social connections,” Beauchamp said. “If you set the environment up so participants feel a sense of connection or belonging with these other people, then they’re more likely to stick with it.”
These simple strategies would be easy to use in a variety of physical activity settings such as community centers, fitness clubs and retirement communities, the researchers noted.
In fact, after the study had ended, the participants didn’t want the classes to stop. Rather than continue their workouts in regular classes, they successfully lobbied the YMCA to continue age-specific sessions.
The findings are published in the journal Health Psychology.
Source: University of British Columbia