Health worries may keep aging adults on the couch

NEW YORK Fri Apr 17, 2009 1:19pm EDT

An elderly woman walks past a branch of savings bank Caja Castilla La Mancha (CCM) in central Madrid March 29, 2009. (REUTERS/Sergio Perez)

An elderly woman walks past a branch of savings bank Caja Castilla La Mancha (CCM) in central Madrid March 29, 2009. (

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Perez)

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Older adults who worry about their health often opt out of physical activity -- and as a result, they may have greater trouble walking and getting around as they age, new research suggests.

"Our research shows that a key component to avoid walking difficulty in older adults is to resolve health worry issues earlier in life," Bradley Cardinal, of the department of nutrition and exercise science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who was involved in the study, noted in a university-issued statement.

Some studies have suggested that "health worry" may motivate people to exercise regularly and engage in other healthy behaviors. The current study, however, suggests that's not always the case.

Among a representative sample of 7,527 adults aged 70 and older participating in the Longitudinal Study of Aging, people with a high degree of health worry engaged in less physical activity than those who worried less about their health.

Furthermore, people who participated in less physical activity were more likely than their more active counterparts to report having trouble walking 6 years later.

"Because physical function decreases with age and safety concerns arise, older adults may not choose physical activity as a response to health worry," the researchers suggest in the current issue of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, where their research is published.

They also note that health professionals, the media, fitness instructors and family and friends may use warnings of illness or premature death to try to motivate aging couch potatoes to exercise or at least become more physically active. However, the current study suggests that this may be counterproductive; aging adults may become so fearful of their health that they will avoid physical activity.

"Using threats and fear-tactics to encourage physical activity in older adults will not work," Cardinal said.

A more productive approach in dealing with health concerns in the aging population, suggest Cardinal and colleagues, is to provide health-related information and screening tools prior to beginning a physical activity routine to help cope with health worries. This might ease health concerns and promote participation in physical activity.

"I think the simple message from this study is that people should be encouraged to walk," Cardinal noted in comments to Reuters Health. "To encourage walking, people should avoid fear-raising tactics. Rather, the emphasis should be on walking for fun, for health, for transportation."

"Fear-inducing strategies often cause older adults to worry about things like falling and that diminishes their desire to walk, which in turn diminishes their ability to walk. It is a vicious cycle," Cardinal warned.

SOURCE: Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, March 2009.

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