Dr Sarah Dean (Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology & a Trainee Health Psychologist) and Dr Amy Burton (Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology & Health Psychologist) blog about ageing, health, stereotyping and physical activity in a piece reposted from the Stoke Sentinel newspaper:
If we were to ask you to describe your typical older person chances are we’d get a wide range of answers from “grey-haired, lonely, unable to work”, “frail, memory problems and declining health” to “wise, caring, happy and active”. What is clear is that there isn’t a ‘typical older person’ at all but there are lots of negative stereotypes that are linked to aging. Interestingly there are now many more older people alive than ever before and this number is set to rise dramatically in the coming years, with record numbers of people living into their 80s, 90s and beyond!
Physical activity is really important for everyone and this doesn’t change as we get older. Exercising keeps us physically fit and helps protect us from developing a range of major illnesses including stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and dementia. It can help us to feel good about ourselves, be a great stress buster and be a fun way to socialise.
Even though many of us know taking exercise is good for us, some people find it difficult. There are many reasons people might have for not exercising. Some feel they are too busy or that it’s too expensive. Others feel nervous about starting a new activity or worry that they are too unfit or overweight to start exercising. People may even think that they are too old for exercise!
As they get older some people start to do much less exercise, others stay physically active and some take up new sports or activities when they retire. One reason for these differences is the extent to which people believe negative aging stereotypes and the extent they apply these to themselves. If someone believes the stereotype that “Aging means a decline in fitness and an increase in ill health” and also believes “I am an older person so I can expect to be less fit and have poorer health” they are much less likely to engage in physical activity than someone who doesn’t believe the stereotype at all or someone who doesn’t believe it applies to them and instead thinks “I am not your average older person, so I can run a marathon”. For example, in 2011 British national Fauja Singh became the first 100 year-old to complete a marathon! At Staffordshire University we are exploring ways of measuring aging self-stereotypes. Once we can accurately measure them we can explore ways of changing them, which should encourage more older adults to exercise!
So…what does all of this mean for you? Regardless of your age, engaging in some form of physical activity each week is likely to be good for you. With Stoke currently the European City of Sport there couldn’t be a better time to do a little more exercise or try something new! If you plan to regularly take exercise it’s a good idea to choose something you enjoy. You should also choose something suited to your current fitness level and your budget. A range of exercise classes are available at the local gyms, such as Zumba, circuit training, aqua aerobics and Osteo-Aqua (a low-impact class designed to combat the effects of conditions like osteoporosis and arthritis, as well as keeping the joints supple). You could try Walking Football or Tai Chi, join a Walking for Health Group or try out one of the 5k Parkruns at 9am every Saturday in Hanley Park.
If you are an older adult or are worried about getting older here are a few things for you to bear in mind:
- While it’s true that physical changes do occur in us as we get older, a rapid decline in our health and physical functioning is not inevitable. Regular exercise can help to protect against decline and improve stamina and fitness.
- The way we think about things can have a really big impact on the way that we behave and feel. Research has shown that simply encouraging older adults to think about negative aging stereotypes results in short term memory declines, slower walking speeds and poorer handwriting!
- If you have a medical condition or have had an injury that makes certain activities difficult or unsuitable for you, try to find something that you can safely do.
- If you have any doubts remember to discuss increasing your levels of physical activity with your GP first.
The take home message? In relation to exercise, we should put less focus on our age and more focus on our own abilities and goals!
Staffordshire University – The Home of Health Psychology
Staffordshire University’s Centre for Health Psychology is a centre of excellence for teaching and research in Health Psychology, and is home to Staffordshire’s BPS Accredited Stage 1 MSc in Health Psychology and BPS Accredited Stage 2 Professional Doctorate in Health Psychology.
The Centre for Health Psychology is part of the Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research and the School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise, one of the leading research-active academic schools for Psychology and Sport degrees situated in the heart of England.
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