Group of middle aged women doing water aerobics
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Studies show staying active key to successful aging

Group of middle aged women doing water aerobicsWith every day that goes by, everyone is getting older, including you. It is a simple fact of life.

As people get older, strategies to age successfully — staying in good physical and mental health throughout our body’s continual decline — become increasingly more important.

One way to do that is by devoting leisure time to physical activity.

About 40 percent of American adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, do not spend any time being active. Only 15 percent report they participate in 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week or more.

According to Marcus Kilpatrick’s study of physical activity, individuals that spend their leisure time participating in physical activity receive numerous physiological health benefits, including combating cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis and obesity. However improvements to health are not the only benefits gained by staying active.

“Researchers found self-gratification, fun, persistence, competence, the perception of youthfulness and improved meaning of life as key contributors of the activities to successful aging,” researcher Kathryn Berlin wrote in a late 2016 study published in the Journal of Women & Aging.

While many studies have found concrete evidence that physical activity correlates to successful aging in older adults, the effects motivations and goals have on their aging experience based on the specific type of activity have remained a relatively unknown variable.

Exercise-based activity focuses on improving health and fitness through “planned, structured, repetitive” activities, while sport-based activity includes separate competitive and social aspects.

A study by the Journal of Women & Aging used 256 women age 60 to 92 engaged in either exercise-based (walking and swimming) or sport-based (golf and bowling) activities and surveyed them to understand how these activities garner different results of successful aging.

Based on the results of the survey, differences between the types of physical activity provided little distinction to what was a better predictor of successful aging. Some quantitative factors initially recorded in the study, such as Body Mass Index (BMI), education level and self-rated health status across all activities showed signs of predicting successful aging, but did not provide clarity on the psychological effects of the activities.

What ended up being most important is figuring out why these women continue to choose to be active and to continually participate.

“Fifty-seven of the 79 interviewees specifically mentioned socialization as a meaning of the leisure activity and an essential component for continuing the activity,” Berlin said. “This social interaction provided feelings of belonging, independence brought about by support from friends, and the comfort of knowing they had friends who were there for them.”

These women were coming back out and participating in these physical activities not simply because of the physiological impact of exercise, but devotion to the social aspect of the activity in general.

Those feelings of togetherness and being there for each other had as great of an impact on perceived successful aging than any of the other quantitative factors based on specific activities.

Similarly, a lot of these women chose activities based on their own preferences. Women participating in swimming exercise were highly motivated by simply being in the water. Many of those that chose golf did so not solely because of the health benefits from exercise, but the relaxation of going out to walk outdoors. Women that admitted a dislike to exercising found that walking with friends had all of the health benefits of ‘exercise,’ but fit more properly under the ‘activity’ category instead.

Rather than simply recognizing that specified health goals or activities being universally meaningful to everyone, understanding that motivation and other factors such as enjoyment and socialization are just as important to continuing a healthy life into your later years.

Ross Andrews is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University

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