Any physical activity, at any age, is better than remaining sedentary

November 30, 2000

The new year awaits, but many senior citizens, along with their younger counterparts, have given up on any resolution to start an exercise program. Or maybe they gave up years ago, intimidated by what they thought was required, and now assume it's too late.

But any physical activity is better than none, at any age, even if it doesn't fit common notions of exercise, says a University of Illinois professor and leading advocate for efforts to encourage "active aging."

It's important to "choose an activity that you will do," rather than just wishing to do something more ambitious, says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko [VOY-tek HODGE-koh-ZYE-koh], head of the UI kinesiology department and chair of the national Active Aging Partnership, established by the American College of Sports Medicine. "It really matters less exactly what you do than it matters to avoid being completely sedentary," he said.

Only about 15 percent of adults over 65 get a recommended level of physical activity, based on a 1996 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, and as many as one-third get none at all, Chodzko-Zajko noted in an article for the November issue of the journal Quest, titled "Successful Aging in the New Millennium: The Role of Regular Physical Activity."

"Part of the problem," he said in an interview, "may be that we've adopted a medical model of exercise, where exercise is sort of a bitter pill, and you get a prescription and you're expected to stick to it ... But the bottom line is it takes time to change behavior, and I personally feel the broader you can define your activity program, the less likely you are to become demoralized."

Chodzko-Zajko suggests that some people might benefit from strategies such as keeping a diary of all their physical activity, including even things like short walks to the store or working in the garden. "It will motivate you to avoid days in which you have nothing to write down." Another simple strategy he said he liked, heard from a well-respected academic, was "buy a dog."

"We used to think in terms of physical activity as traditional exercise, but now we realize that physical activity can be gained from a large number of different activities," Chodzko-Zajko said. And once people get started, they gradually can increase the intensity and duration at their own rate.

In his Quest article, however, Chodzko-Zajko argues that more research is needed on what motivates seniors to be physically active. Part of the answer may lie in finding ways to integrate physical activity with other important needs, as part of the same program or in the same facility.

"In order to age successfully, older persons will need to be not only physically active, but also socially, intellectually, culturally, and (for many seniors) spiritually active," he wrote. "One of the challenges for our profession in the new millennium will be to learn how to integrate physical activity into the wider social, cultural, and economic context of active aging as a whole."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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