My heart couldn't take it

September 08, 2000

A strong belief that exercise poses risks-sometimes fatal-often encourages sedentary living among older women says a University of Alberta researcher.

Dr. Sandra O'Brien Cousins, a professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, surveyed more than 300 women over the age of 70 about benefits and risks for six fitness activities: brisk walking, aquacize, cycling, stretching slowly to touch the toes, modified push-ups from a kneeling position and supine curl-ups.

Respondents generally recognized broad health benefits to fitness activities, but beliefs about risks were strong, anatomically specific and sometimes sensational in description. "My heart would hemorrhage." "Muscle seizure." "I would be carried out on a stretcher," were comments from several participants. Other women said they stayed away from aquacize because they were concerned they would slip on the deck, get dizzy or lose their balance. Others feared "being seen in a bathing suit or in the shower room. I do not undress in public." Many women avoided curl-ups because of back and neck injuries: "It would finish me." "Heart attack and headache." "Snapping my neck. Death."

"Some women feel very much at risk in community exercise programs and may benefit from specialty programs that address their specific needs," said O'Brien Cousins, who includes recommendations in her study published in the current issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. "With better information on actual injury risk, older people may overcome the perception that adopting an exerting health behavior, like exercise, is futile for a remote long-term disease risk reduction."

Defensive reactions and exaggerated beliefs about risk may be linked to recent and uncomfortable realizations among older women that they have not been looking after themselves according to new standards, when more fairly they are being scrutinized by a society that has suddenly changed the health rules, said O'Brien Cousins.
The UofA in Edmonton, Alberta is one of Canada's premier teaching and research universities serving more than 30,000 students with 6,000 faculty and staff. It continues to lead the country with the most 3M Teaching Fellows, Canada's only national award recognizing teaching excellence.

University of Alberta

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