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Physical Activities of Older Adults: Longitudinal Interdisciplinary Analysis

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PAOLInA (Physical Activities of Older Adults: Longitudinal Interdisciplinary Analysis)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2018-02-28

The PAOLInA-project focused on physical activities of older citizens of European countries. The goal was to show what is covered by the term “physical activities” (PAs), and to differentiate the PAs into domains according to their purpose (e.g. sports in leisure time, PA needed for self-care, PA as form of transportation, etc.). The Experienced Researcher (ER) hypothesized that the overall involvement of older adults in PA does not necessarily decline as the individuals are getting older, but that some types of activities may even increase or replace others. If these interdependencies are neglected in the measurement older adults may appear as more inactive than they actually are. The ER also examined and continues to examine the factors that influence the change of the PAs. In this context, she is looking at the interplay between individual characteristics and the attributes of people’s living environments. The objectives addressed in the PAOLInA-project provide a useful basis for interventions aimed at increasing PA in older adults.

Aim 1: To determine how PA develops in the late and latest years of life.

1) Does the overall level of PA change as people grow older, and how?
Project Outcome: Using a nationally representative dataset from the Netherlands, the ER showed that the overall level of PA decreases as people grow older.

2) Do certain domains of PA gain importance as people age, whereas others lose importance?
When considering the proportional contribution of various PA domains to PA time, some PA domains such as light housework and walking for transportation gain in importance, whereas others such as heavy housework lose importance, and still others such as structured sports remain relatively constant at low levels.

3) How are age-related changes in PA related to meeting of PA recommendations?
This question is still being examined.

Aim 2: To determine how the interplay of individual characteristics and environmental factors influences PA trajectories in old age.

1) Which combination of individual characteristics and environmental attributes supports the maintenance of PA in old age over the long term?
In a systematic review of the literature, the ER identified two psychological variables (motivation, self-efficacy) as well as subjective health as factors that are consistently linked to higher PA levels in older adults. Some demographic variables (e.g. gender, education) may be important, but there impact seems to depend on PA domain. The systematic review of the literature also showed that PAs are rarely differentiated by domain or purpose, or – at least – measurement of PA is not accurately described in the literature in many cases.

2) Are some environments particularly supportive of PA engagement, even when people are predisposed to decreasing their PA based on their individual characteristics?
3) Can certain individual characteristics allow people to thrive and maintain PA into the latest years of life, even when environmental conditions are unfavourable?

Research questions 2 and 3 are still being examined.
WP 1:
The main constructs physical activity, individual characteristics, and environmental factors were operationalized. Based on the existing literature and relevant theoretical models, individual characteristics that could potentially influence PA in older adults were identified and included in a systematic review of the literature. The ER evaluated 16 potential datasets. Three datasets were selected as suitable for the project: Longitudinal Ageing Study Amsterdam (LASA); Berlin Aging Study II (BASE II), and Study of Health and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The ER signed agreements for use of those datasets. The ER also conducted several smaller scale pilot studies. Relevant individual characteristics were identified in the datasets: LASA: Age, gender, education, diseases, subjective health, walking aids, self-efficacy, perceived physical ability; BASE II: Subjective age, age, gender, education, depressive symptoms, morbidity, BMI, cognitive performance; SHARE dataset was deemed as not appropriate for the analyses because the physical activities were not sufficiently differentiated.

WP 2:
Information was gathered from the existing literature and also from the Physical Activity Compendium. Categories were established. However, it also became clear that it is frequently not precisely described which type of physical activity was measured in a given study, or that (when accelerometry is used) only a composite score of physical activity is reported. An overview of the European datasets with PA data is available upon request to interested parties. It will be made available on the website at the ER’s new university shortly.

WP 3:
The trajectory of the proportional contribution of different PA domains to total PA time as people aged was mapped. Several public engagement events to educate people about the importance and trajectory of PAs in old age were held.
A book chapter focusing on motivation as a relevant individual characteristic was published.

WP 4:
A secondment at the University Medicine Greifswald took place October 2017 until January 2018. A literature review examining the environment factors that are associated with higher PA levels in old age was started; it is still in progress because the data extraction turned out to be more complicated than originally anticipated. The following steps remain to be completed: writing of results and discussion sections.
A public engagement took place:
Notthoff, N. (2018). Wohin die Füße tragen wollen… Bedeutung von physischer und sozialer Umwelt für Aktivität im Alter. (Whereto our feet want to carry… The role of the physical and social environment for physical activity in older age). Invited talk at the AEQUIPA Conference, Bremen, Germany.

WP 5:
Statistical analyses examining the interplay of different individual characteristics and environment factors in their importance for PA were conducted. The manuscript is still a work in progress. The following sections have been completed: introduction; methods; part of results. The following sections need to be completed: part of results; discussion. The results will be presented at the Gerontological Society of America Annual Meeting held in Boston in November 2018.
Possible points for intervention were identified: either PAs that older adults tend to continue engaging in as they grow older (e.g. light housework) or PAs that they perform less of (e.g. structured sports). The ER completed several trainer certification programs in order to be able to design appropriate programs in interventions. The ER secured a tenure track position as Assistant Professor for Exercise Psychology at a leading German university.
The ER demonstrated that in order to understand PA trajectories in old age, it is crucial to differentiate PAs by their purpose because PA domains differ in their age-related trajectories and in the individual characteristics that affect their level and change. The examination of the role of environment factors is still a work in progress. The PAOLInA-project contributed to identifying possible points for intervention for increasing PA in older adults – an important goal, given that PA seems to be “the ultimate anti-ageing pill”: either PAs that older adults tend to continue engaging in as they grow older (e.g. light housework) or PAs that they perform less of (e.g. structured sports).
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