Maintaining an active life as we get older
Even those with a resilient habit are dropping out of activity or reducing their activity levels as they get older. Sport England’s latest data shows that the pandemic has only exacerbated this challenge.
In this blog, Andy Coley-Maud, from Sport England’s health team, shares their research into the impact of the pandemic on activity levels of older adults; and also the hope he takes from the past 10 months in our ability to respond to the difficulties.
A memory from my early childhood – brought to the fore recently by this wonderfully emotive Christmas ad – is when my grandad burst into tears when he was no longer able to lift me up onto his shoulders. In retirement, he simply didn’t find enjoyable opportunities to maintain an active life. Over time, his independence and quality of life deteriorated. He gradually lacked the strength to tend to his garden, and the mobility to leave the house, see friends and continue doing all the things he enjoyed.
Societal narratives reinforce this notion that as we age, we will and should slow down. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We know physical activity and strengthening activities can minimise the impact that ageing has on our wellbeing and quality of life.
Indeed, through our portfolio of Active Ageing partners we’ve seen that carefully co-designed and person-centred opportunities can support older and previously inactive participants of all capabilities and backgrounds to get active and they’ve embraced all manner of activities from coastal rowing and dance to hiking and chair-based gymnastics. This uplifting video from one of our Active Ageing partners – Single Homeless Project, a London-wide charity working to prevent homelessness and using physical activity to help vulnerable and socially excluded people to transform their lives – is just one example of how the right opportunity and support can enable happier, healthier and more connected lives.
We were seeing strong growth in the activity levels of older adults (55-74 and 75+) across England until the pandemic hit (as measured by Sport England’s Active Lives national survey). So, there is wonderful expertise and experience across the sport and physical activity sector that can be shared and built upon. And indeed, ‘Live Longer Better’ is doing just this, bringing together Active Partnerships, alongside national and local stakeholders, to share learning from across the country and change how we talk about and provide opportunities to get active for this audience.
However, understandably, pandemic restrictions and the resulting anxiety, shielding and confusion have caused significant and persistent disruption to the activity levels of older adults. In particular:
- National activity levels have decreased - During the first lockdown period of mid-March to mid-May, the activity levels of people aged 55-74 and 75+ both decreased compared with the same time period the previous year.
- This is due mainly to reduced opportunities - Whilst many were motivated to be active and some managed to be more active than before the pandemic; many more found that diminished opportunities and worry and anxiety about catching COVID-19 made it harder to be active. In particular, we saw a significant fall in activities outside the home for the 70+ age group who were initially advised to shield. And this picture has continued through subsequent lockdowns.
- Financial pressures, caring responsibilities and anxieties about the safety of activity are further restricting the ability of this audience to prioritise physical activity and remain active.
Whilst there’s no escaping the extent of this challenge, I do take immense hope from how individuals and organisations have adapted to support this audience, not only to stay active, but in providing food and medication deliveries, and a valued source of companionship.
We’ve seen partners across the board rapidly reimagine their delivery and support. Just two examples are:
- The Sport England supported radio programme 10 Today, which is now being aired daily on BBC radio and BBC Sounds, and offers simple and engaging, 10-minute daily home workouts.
- Our Active Ageing partners Yorkshire Dance and One Dance UK who have taken dance activity to the individual on their driveways and doorsteps, where restrictions allow, to retain the fun and engaging social connections of their model.
So, I go into this new year with optimism for what we can collectively do. There is still so much more that needs to be and can be done for supply to meet the breadth of interests, motivations and capabilities of an older audience. And at Sport England, working alongside partners like the Centre for Ageing Better, we will continue to foster and support collaboration and innovation to address this. To continuously improve sport and physical activity messaging, experiences and opportunities in the context of what matters to people and their health as they get older.