Physical Activity in Older, Rural, Hispanic, and Non-Hispanic White Adults

Carolyn J. Swenson; Julie A. Marshall; Susan K. Mikulich-Gilbertson; Judith Baxter; Nora Morgenstern


Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005;37(6):995-1002. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Purpose: Understanding variations in physical activity patterns is important for planning health interventions. This study describes age-related change in physical activity in 903 rural Hispanic and non-Hispanic white (NHW) adults age 55-80.
Methods: The Physical Activity History assessed 13 categories of productive and recreational activity during the past year with up to four assessments per participant from 1987 to 1998.
Results: The most common activities were walking and home maintenance/gardening. Productive and recreational physical activity levels were lower in women than men (P < 0.0001), and within each gender group Hispanics had lower levels of both activity types than NHW (P values less than 0.05). In men, productive activity steadily declined with age in NHW and Hispanics. Recreational activity increased slightly until age 63, then decreased after age 70. In women, productive activity initially stayed stable then decreased in NHW after age 63, and in Hispanics it decreased at younger ages before stabilizing after age 70. Recreational activity levels decreased steadily with age in all women, with a steeper rate of decline in NHW than Hispanics. In both ethnic groups, activity levels were lower in diabetics than nondiabetics, except for recreational activity in women where levels did not differ by diabetes status.
Conclusions: The most common activities were similar to other studies of older adults, both recreational and productive activities contributed to total activity, and physical activity decreased in all gender-ethnic subgroups with age. Hispanic women reported the lowest activity levels. Interventions to maintain or increase recreational activity may need to target women at an earlier age than men.

The ability to maintain an independent, productive life is a sign of successful aging.[11] A higher level and intensity of physical activity has been associated with multiple health benefits in older adults, including prevention of disability, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and coronary heart disease (CHD); decreased mortality; and improved psychological well-being.[3,10,15,18,19,21,23] It is important to accurately describe ethnic, gender, and geographic variations in physical activity patterns to plan appropriate health promotion interventions that provide reasonable opportunities for engaging in physical activity. Detailed information on age-related physical activity change may also identify life stages, and subgroup variations in those stages, at which physical activity messages and interventions are most likely to be effective.

Several studies reported that physical activity declines with age, especially strenuous activity.[1,5,8,16,19,26,27] The most commonly reported activities among older adults are walking and gardening.[1,8,16] Several studies noted that walking as a proportion of total physical activity increased with age.[1,9,16] Studies that primarily measured recreational (leisure and fitness) activities may have missed important productive (nonleisure) physical activities, such as housework, childcare, and manual labor in women, minorities, and persons with less education.[2,7,18,22] In the United Sates, Hispanics are the fastest-growing subgroup of older adults,[25] yet there is little information on age-related physical activity patterns in this population.

Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data on leisure time physical activity in 49 states[6] indicated that physical inactivity was higher in rural than metropolitan areas, with a more pronounced difference in men than women, and inactivity was lowest in the western United States. Because work-related activity was not measured, physical activity might have been underestimated in rural areas. In a study in rural New York,[9] 46% of respondents reported no regular physical activity that resulted in sweating, and farmers were more likely than all other participants to report sweat-inducing activity. A study of 25- to 75-yr-olds in rural Sweden[12] found that 50% of men and 22% of women performed some form of moderate to heavy work across all ages, but only 20% of men and 8% of women performed regular exercise. Wilcox and colleagues[29] reported that rural middle-aged and older women were less active than urban women, except in the western United States and among Hispanics, where activity in rural and urban women did not differ significantly. Ethnic and racial minorities have reported lower levels of recreational activity than non-Hispanic whites[5,7,22] though two studies indicated similar levels in Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites,[29,30] and another reported more activity in Hispanic women.[2]

Thus, there is uncertainty about physical activity patterns in older, rural, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white (NHW) adults. Identifying gender, ethnic, and geographic diversity in physical activity patterns is useful for tailoring health promotion messages and interventions to population subgroups, particularly those at higher risk for physical inactivity with age. This study describes longitudinal productive and recreational physical activity change from 1987 to 1998 in 903 older, rural, Hispanic, and NHW adults who participated in a large, population-based study of Type 2 diabetes.


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