Busting the ‘slow down’ myth: vigorous activity needed in later life to live longer and better

Older people are the most sedentary group in Australia, but recent research indicates many would exercise more if encouraged to do so.


Author Dr Michelle Jongenelis, from The Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at the University of Melbourne, said moderate-to-vigorous physical activity can delay age-related illness and disability, allowing us to live independently for longer, and have a much better quality of life.

Research found older people were receptive to idea that they can engage in more vigorous activity. Image: rawpixel.com


“The problem is, we’re mostly not doing it – a whopping 75 per cent of Australians aged 65 and over don’t do the minimum weekly recommended 150 minutes of activities that improve cardiovascular fitness, strength, balance and flexibility,” she said.


“And when older people do exercise, it tends not to be at a high enough intensity level to reap all the potential benefits. This lack of participation is at least partly because many older people don’t know they can and should be more active, and they rarely see themselves portrayed in public health messages about exercise.


“There are challenges when it comes to normalising exercise at an older age - we expect to be less active as we grow older and worry that we might get hurt. Well-meaning family members often discourage more vigorous forms of activity. Older people are also more likely to have physical limitations, and many are not used to scheduling regular exercise into their days.”


The research team set out to identify how to motivate older Australians to do more moderate-to-vigorous exercise.


1,200 Australians over the age of 50 watched a custom-developed public service advertisement that was designed according to recommendations for communicating with older audiences. The ad featured older people visibly enjoying moderate-to-vigorous physical activities including tennis, line dancing, cycling, swimming, and jogging. The variety of exercises was meant to appeal to a wide range of people, and to reflect the diverse life and health experiences of older Australians.


“We found that older people were very receptive to the idea that they can engage in more vigorous activity. Nine out of 10 found the message believable and eight out of 10 said it made them feel they should be more active. Many said they enjoyed watching it, and it made them feel happy, motivated, and inspired. They especially appreciated seeing people like themselves in the ad,” Dr Jongenelis said.


“It wasn’t showing ridiculous 20+ (year old) people all going flat out with their chosen sport. Showing older people made it feel more relatable to me personally,” said one male participant.


“The first thing that I noticed is that it has older people, which makes it more relevant to me,” said a female participant.


Some participants provided feedback that alternatives for people with physical limitations should also be shown in such messages.


“As our population ages, it’s essential we do everything possible to ensure Australians have a great quality of life, prevent avoidable illness and injury, allow people to live independently, and reduce the impact on our health system down the line,” Dr Jongenelis said.


“This includes investing in public education campaigns that normalise moderate-to-vigorous physical activity to help older people and their loved ones overcome current assumptions that we should become more sedentary as we get older.


“This research was conducted in collaboration with The George Institute for Global Health, Curtin University, The University of Western Australia, and Edith Cowan University”.


24 October 2021.