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Guest Column - February 2004

Staying Fit for the Future

By Ron Derk


As professionals in the parks and recreation industry, we're very much aware of the trends and changes in the attitudes towards health, fitness and safety—to name only a few. And one change that stands out for me is the attitude that people—from young adults to older adults—have toward exercise. In addition to toning muscles and losing weight, people are now exercising their minds and spirits as well. The result is that more people are incorporating yoga, tai chi and Pilates into their daily workouts—exercises that not only work the body but also the mind. They're building a total sense of wellness—physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

So what sparked this embrace of total body wellness? I think it comes down to this: Americans are living longer so they want their lives to be healthier. Statistics show that older adults, those ages 50 and older, make up the second largest percentage of the U.S. population. This is a big change from 100 years ago when the life expectancy was only 47 years old. Fortunately, over the last century, the vast improvements in medicine and technology have impacted the quality of life in such a way that today's average life expectancy is 77 years.

And as we become more educated, we are aware of the role exercise and healthy diets play in quality of life as we get older. Studies show that physical activity helps ward off heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Unfortunately, many of the physical activities we used to do on a daily basis have drastically decreased because of all of our technological advancements. Think about it. People now use elevators and escalators instead of taking the stairs. People drive to the places where they used to walk. And computers continue to replace many jobs that once required manual labor. So, while technology has made our lives easier, one could argue it has also made us sedentary and less healthy.

The lack of physical activity in our daily lives is so prevalent that it has actually become a public health concern. This means that inactivity has become so widespread that it is now a risk factor for many of the leading causes of death. In fact, one-third of deaths in the United States are because of physical inactivity and poor nutrition. And this inactivity also has a direct affect on our medical costs.

Findings from the 2000 census show that physically active older adults spend $866 less per year on direct medical expenditures than those who are inactive. Even active people with arthritis spend 12 percent less on medical costs than inactive people with arthritis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical inactivity costs the United States $76.5 billion annually.

So how are we, as parks and recreation professionals, helping this population in terms of fitness? Do we have programs in place that encourage older adults to exercise? Or maybe the way that question should be phrased is: Are older adults using the exercise programs you have in place? I suspect that many of us would answer "no." So what can we do?

At my company, for example, we've asked ourselves that question over and over again. In theory, the answer seems simple: encourage them to exercise. But the reality is a different story. Many older adults are afraid to exercise, citing fear of falling and chronic medical conditions as reasons. But what they might not realize is that by exercising only 30 minutes a day, they can actually reduce the likelihood of falling and improve their overall health.

So the challenge is to create activities that get older adults exercising and at the same time keep it fun so it doesn't feel like exercise. There is hope. Through our research we found that older adults are "waking up" to inactivity and are beginning to take action in improving their health.

And what are older adults doing to combat this trend of physical inactivity? Walking. In fact, walking has become the most widespread form of adult recreation among this generation. Walking provides an aerobic activity that helps to keep heart muscles strong, lower blood pressure, and relieve anxiety and depression. And while it's a good start, walking alone won't keep older adults physically fit. Strength, balance and flexibility should also be part of the process. In fact, one way to combat the frequency of falls, which is likely to increase as we age, is by strengthening muscles and improving balance and flexibility.

To take it a step further, maybe the key to building exercise habits with older adults is to base a program on something they are already doing—walking. Using that approach, consider the implications of a built-in system of exercise hubs along an established trail. Designed for use out-of-doors along existing walking paths, such a system encourages strengthening exercises during a normal walking routine.

One new system comprises a series of 10 different wellness stations; each station has an activity that has been developed to address the major components of a well-rounded fitness program for older adults. Performing the series of upper- and lower-body exercises at each station will help individuals enhance their muscle strength, balance, flexibility and cardiovascular efficiency. These exercises simulate everyday activities like putting on a seat belt, opening jars, picking up bags and wringing out towels.

And because the wellness stations create stopping points along the walking path, they also become social mini-hubs where folks can exercise alongside friends or meet new acquaintances as they work out. Each station has two activity panels, and the third panel provides health information to make the experience educational and reinforce the health benefits of each activity.

As we look ahead to the next 100 years, it's hard to imagine what life will be like. How will technology influence our behavior? Will medicine have advanced to the point where reaching 90 makes you middle-aged? It's hard to say. But my hope is that by encouraging more people to exercise and adopt healthy lifestyles now, the better chance we have of experiencing what the future holds firsthand.

Ron Derk is director of Sales and Marketing for Playworld Systems, Inc. For more information on LifeTrail, visit www.playworldsystems.com/lifetrail.