It’s clear that being physically active has a variety of benefits for older adults, however, it’s less clear which specific types of activity are most beneficial, and which subgroups of older adults have the most to gain from different forms of exercise. There is a good deal of research regarding physical activity and aging, but how does this inform policy and clinical practice? What topics are in need of further research?
A forthcoming article presents the findings of a survey taken by 348 experts that was used to identify which forms of exercise are indeed beneficial, and which require more evidence to be identified as beneficial. These findings may be used to establish a strong research agenda for physical activity and aging.
The researchers who developed the survey used a web-based, “snowball” survey model. A snowball design is defined as a method that recruits an initial wave of participants who then recommend additional participants. In this case, the researchers recruited experts by consulting with The CDC Healthy Aging Research Network (CDC-HAN). The researchers chose individuals who were experts on aging and physical activity, and therefore, professionally invested in the advancement of the field.
The survey asked participants to identify their professional background, and to assess the strength of the available research evidence about different types of exercise. Survey respondents had an average of 15.6 years of experience in the field, and were mostly involved in research on the efficacy of physical health interventions. Participants were asked to rank different areas of research in terms of priority and to identify those topics most in need of further research.
According to survey respondents, aerobic exercise and walking offer the strongest evidence for being most beneficial. Resistance exercise, such as weightlifting, was rated as providing strong evidence by just under half (49 percent) of the participants, while 40.4 percent rated it as offering “moderate” evidence. Flexibility exercise offered the lowest amount of perceived research evidence, with just over one third (35.9 percent) of respondents noting it as beneficial, compared to 15.5 percent who said there is strong evidence of the health benefits of flexibility exercise.
The researchers identified themes for further research in the survey responses. One such theme was the perceived need for more studies on the “dose-response” benefit of exercise—that is, how much exercise is needed to see benefit, and how much benefit exists? Another area of need identified by respondents was the practical considerations of implementing and sustaining exercise programs across different groups of older adults. Further topics of concern were how to recruit participants to physical activities, how the physical environment can be used to encourage active aging, and how to develop and promote social policy on active aging. Participants also stated that research must be more inclusive of low-income participants, people with physical and intellectual limitations, and minority populations.
This survey identified consensus on the benefits of many forms of physical activity and identified topics that future research should address. Most experts agree that research strongly supports aerobic activity and walking for older adults. In addition, resistance exercise has moderate-to-strong support. More research is needed regarding the specific benefits of different levels of exercise, and about the development of programs that may be beneficial for several underrepresented sub-populations.
Hughes SL, Leith KH, Marquez DX, et al. Physical activity and older adults: expert consensus for a new research agenda. Gerontologist. 2011. [e-pub ahead of print]