65+ and Active: Headline findings

hund, frau und mann haben spass

Society is getting older – and also less active. With 2012 being the European Year of Active Aging, the importance of remaining active in later life is becoming more at the forefront of policy making – and not a year too soon: In England only 17% of males and 13% of women aged 65-74 are physically active. And inactivity is responsible for an estimated 5-8% of premature deaths in the UK – and costing the NHS an estimated £1,8 billion.

What can be done to increase the activity levels? We recently obtained funding from the British Academy for the Active Plus project looking at this topic from a social marketing perspective. And after the first few focus groups, here are the headline findings I’ll be presenting at the IRSPM in Dublin next week:

Perception Problems

There are major misconceptions about good levels of physical activity – actually not only amongst people who are over 65 – but also amongst care providers. While regular physical activity is particularly important for this age group – many people think that if they haven’t been active all their life there would be little or no benefit in starting in later life.

Relevance of Messages

Many of the messages directed at  increasing physical activity are not considered relevant by people over 65. This includes social marketing messages who often emphasize other benefits then health benefits. The problem that emerged during the focus groups was that many people in the target group were actually more responsive to health centric messages – and that current messages tended to be perceived as for the “younger”. As the  health benefits of exercise are not well understood, clarifying these is a major priority going forward.

Perception of Exercise Itself

Physical symptoms of exercise, i.e. being out of breath or muscle soreness were seen as negative signs – and interpreted as a sign to go slow or stop exercising. This is quite the opposite of many younger people – and again reinforces the need to raise awareness of the health benefits of exercise – and also demonstrate that physical symptoms like being out of breath are not a negative – but rather show that exercise is working.

Media Channels

Advertising was seen as the least effective way to promote messages – and current advertisements were noted – but not found to be relevant or interesting. Better channels included health practitioners raising the topic pro-actively. Amongst media channels, radio programs were seen as effective, especially serials and talk-shows. Several participants also mentioned that there was little depiction of characters in later life engaging in exercise in any of the popular shows in the UK – so there were no real role models.


Pretty much all participants also pointed out that they were not “old” – and therefore felt that many of the activity programs run by local authorities were not for them – as they frequently branded themselves “for seniors” etc. (a label that was seen by some as even offensive). Many participants felt the positioning should be more subtle – emphasizing well being and staying young – rather than being old.

These findings are based on only a few groups – but so far, from a social marketing perspective, a really interesting story emerges: the preference for health-emphasizing messages rather than promoting other benefits is interesting (and different to many other target groups). Equally, the various barriers and (often wrong) perceptions will be a challenge to overcome.

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