Healthy Living: Worries May Deter Exercise

Seniors like Louise Johnson of Corvallis benefit from regular exercise, but for many, health worries keep them from walks and other workouts. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

November 3, 2009

Researchers advise a positive approach to exercise promotion

By Nick Houtman

In Brief

Many adults do not get enough exercise to maintain health. Ironically, OSU researchers have found, worries about their health may deter them from engaging in activities that could increase wellness and longevity. 

"There is a fountain of youth. Millions have discovered it - the secret to feeling better and living longer," the National Institutes of Health says prominently on its Medline Plus Web site. "It's called staying active."

Apparently millions haven't gotten the message. While seniors are hitting the treadmills, swimming laps and walking or jogging around the neighborhood, the Centers for Disease Control reports that more than half of American adults are not physically active enough to maintain their health. Ironically, part of the explanation may lie in how much people worry about health, an Oregon State University research team reported last spring.

As part of his doctoral studies, former OSU graduate student Kin-Kit Li, now a professor at City University, Hong Kong, worked with OSU professors Bradley Cardinal and Samuel Vuchinich to analyze exercise data from 7,527 adults with a mean age of 77 years old. In the journal Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, they reported that people who worry about their health engage in less physical activity, and those who participate in less activity are more likely to report having difficulty walking.

Accent the Positive

For Cardinal, who commented in widely published media stories about the report, the findings confirm the importance of promoting exercise in ways that reduce anxiety. "Using threats and fear-tactics to encourage physical activity in older adults will not work," says the professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences at OSU.

OSU researchers have long studied the factors that underlie healthy lifestyles. Among their many accomplishments are programs such as Better Bones and Balance, which helps older adults build agility and bone mass through weight-bearing exercise. Mobility, which declines with aging, has been identified as one of the key topics in aging research, as walking difficulty reduces quality of life. Most studies have emphasized the behavioral or physiological mechanisms that lead to walking difficulty among older adults, but not until recently have researchers started to look at possible psychological effects.

Health worry, physical inactivity and walking difficulty may actually combine to have a negative effect on each other. "Our research shows that a key component to avoid walking difficulty in older adults is to resolve health worry issues earlier in life," said Cardinal.

Hall of Fame

Cardinal's own research focuses on exercise across the life span. A former Eastern Washington University football letterman (his 1985 team was inducted into the EWU Hall of Fame in 2005), he has studied the benefits of athletics and exercise for children and adults. He and Li continue to collaborate on studies of factors that affect the willingness and ability of people to exercise at different life stages.

Cardinal's past studies have shown that matching various behavioral change strategies with participants' readiness for change is effective. In addition, implementing screening tools, such as the revised Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire prior to initiating a physical activity program, should be considered for use more widely among older adults.

In 2007, Cardinal was elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Kinesiology and Physical Education, which is the highest honorary society in his field and built upon the tradition of the National Academies. This fall, he received the Elizabeth P. Ritchie Distinguished Professor Award at OSU for his undergraduate teaching and leadership.

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