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Policy: Life in our years

A new report from ukactive sets out the key role the health and fitness can play in getting our ageing nation active, as Liz Terry reports

Published in Health Club Management 2021 issue 6
Older people gave insights into the kinds of physical activity offerings they want / Dragana Gordic/SHUTTERSTOCK
Older people gave insights into the kinds of physical activity offerings they want / Dragana Gordic/SHUTTERSTOCK

Older adults have revealed what they want from the fitness and leisure sector in order to encourage them to increase their levels of participation, with the findings outlined in a report published by ukactive at the end of June.

This report – Life In Our Years – was produced based on evidence gathered by the ukactive Research Institute, with the aim of reversing the trend of older adults being underrepresented when it comes to participation.

ukactive says this is the most comprehensive consultation ever undertaken for the over-55s, with a sample of more than 100 adults aged 55- to 90-years-of-age taking part in focus groups and giving their views on current practice.

Researchers asked them to share details of measures they felt would incentivise them to exercise more in the nation’s gyms, health clubs, studios, pools and leisure centres.

Key takeaways include that the sector should focus on ‘ability rather than age’ in both the delivery and marketing of activities, as well as making exercise easy, accessible and social, to incentivise people to take part with friends.

The challenge we face
Only 54 per cent of adults over the age of 55 complete the World Health Organization’s recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week, with just over a third (34 per cent) doing less than 30 minutes a week, which classifies them as ‘inactive’.

COVID-19 has been particularly damaging for older adults. In the UK, it has also exacerbated the pressures on the NHS and on social care organisations and ukactive says this means fitness and leisure facilities have an essential role to play in reducing the burden on health systems.

Sport England’s latest Active Lives Survey bears out this trend, showing that the number of adults aged 55 to 74 achieving the recommended activity levels fell by 1.3 per cent between November 2019 and November 2020, while those aged 75 and over were logged as having a decrease in activity levels of 2.9 per cent.

ukactive says the report’s recommendations are important for the UK’s recovery from COVID-19, as the fitness and leisure sector helps build resilience for older adults against many health concerns, including COVID-19 and possible future pandemics.

In announcing the publication of Life In Our Years, Huw Edwards, CEO at ukactive, told HCM: “We recognise there are some excellent programmes and practice in the sector already and this came across clearly in the consultation and focus group sessions, but now we must grasp the opportunity to improve our offer to those aged over 55.”

Outcomes
By investigating the activity sector’s current offering and comparing this with older adults’ perception of these services, the ukactive Research Institute has built a list of six themes based on insights to help the sector encourage more older adults to take part in physical activity.

The main themes to emerge from the research were the importance of accessibility, atmosphere, social interaction, workforce engagement, promotion, the categorisation of programmes and class offerings and long-term physical health support following the pandemic.

Based on these six themes, nine recommendations have been made to enable operators to improve participation levels among older adults and to play an increased role in improving their health and wellbeing.

Connecting with the health sector
In the introduction to the report, Sir Muir Gray flags up the importance of collaboration between the activity sector and the health sector, saying: “This report is an opportunity to drive the development of strong and irreversible partnerships with health agencies, including the NHS. The activity sector must also be involved in the new Health and Care Partnerships.

“Looking forward, this report, and the adoption of the recommendations contained in it, can become the catalyst for developing robust pathways from GPs and allied health professionals to these facilities and to sports medicine and rehabilitation services, such as geriatric medicine – an agenda that has the overwhelming support of the older people who contributed to this report.”

In welcoming the report, Dame Carol Black, chair of the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “Physical activity is more important than ever for people in their 50s and 60s.

“COVID-19 has widened health inequalities among older people and more than a third of over-55s say that their strength has declined since the outbreak of the pandemic.

“A loss of physical strength and capability puts people at much greater risk of falls and ill-health in later life. We need urgent action to reverse this trend, or it will have serious consequences.

“The Centre for Ageing Better looks forward to working with ukactive to improve the fitness and leisure sector’s offer,” she said.

Edwards said: “This research found that our sector has the opportunity to do more, by fine-tuning the ways in which it targets, delivers, monitors and evaluates programmes for older adults.

“The sector is perfectly placed to support older adults in maintaining their independence, reducing health inequalities and easing pressures on the social care system.

“Increasing participation levels among older adults can improve cardiovascular health and overall strength, which in turn ensures over-55s can live in better health and maintain independence for longer.

“Not only are there commercial opportunities to engage with a new audience, there are also other opportunities to innovate to help those who are most vulnerable, by linking to healthcare pathways.

“Increasing engagement with older adults offers our sector an opportunity to cement its reputation within government as an essential service, diversify its membership base and position itself as a socially-driven industry,” he concluded.

Dr Matthew Wade, head of R&D at ukactive, said: “Research shows being physically active and undertaking strength training can help older adults live healthy and independent lives.

“By including them directly in this research, the findings provide us with the opportunity to help the sector satisfy the demand from older adults by providing physical activity options that they want.”

9 Recommendations

1. Make activity easy and accessible.

2. Focus on strength training as early as possible to enable people to maintain their independence.

3. Create and build an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere to increase the likelihood of repeat usage and foster a sense of belonging and community.

4. Make activity more social, to incentivise people to come through your doors.

5. Prepare the workforce to support health needs specific to the older adult, through developing their interpersonal and communication skills and knowledge of common health conditions.

6. Categorise activities by ability or intensity, not by age.

7. Make communication and promotion clear to help build consumer confidence and help people make informed activity decisions.

8. Consider the changed physical and mental health needs of older adults post-COVID-19.

9. Build an evidence base to understand the impact the sector is having on older adults’ health and to attract investment into the sector.

Older people need regular strength training to maintain their independence / Dragana Gordic/SHUTTERSTOCK
6 Themes

1. Create easy and accessible offerings that utilise customer feedback to make necessary adaptations to scheduling (eg, flexibility in frequency, booking options and range of activities), while supporting the needs of older adults that are centred around maintaining strength.

2. Create, build and maintain a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere to increase the likelihood of repeat usage through fostering a sense of community and rapport between the workforce and customers and maintaining high standards of safety and facility upkeep.

3. Maintain and increase socialising opportunities through your offerings in order to support physical, mental and social health, improve experience and drive attendances.

4. Prepare the workforce with the people skills to deliver high quality offerings primarily with knowledge on communication and interpersonal skills and an understanding of common health conditions and how to adapt exercises to individual health needs.

5. Appropriately communicate offerings to maximise attendance by a) categorising people by ability or intensity, not age; b) providing clear and detailed information about ability levels and what offerings include and c) advertising intergenerational mixing.

6. Ensure offerings support physical health and integrated health care systems in the long-term, by providing sessions that address changes in physical ability, support physical rehabilitation of older adults from COVID-19, and continue a digital-hybrid approach.

Foster a sense of rapport with the workforce / Photo: hedgehog94/SHUTTERSTOCK

Life In Our Years has been published by ukactive in partnership with Egym

Download a copy here: www.HCMmag.com/lifeinouryears

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