AMES, Iowa – Older Iowans are getting a new lease on LIFE —Living (well through) Intergenerational Fitness and Exercise. Although only in its pilot phase, this Iowa State University Extension and Outreach program already is showing that older adults age 60+ can improve their flexibility and hand grip strength in just six months with appropriate aerobic exercise and resistance activity. And they’re doing it by playing video games — also known as exergaming — with college students.
Iowa State began this research study because physical inactivity among older adults is a growing public health issue, said Sarah Francis, an assistant professor and ISU Extension and Outreach nutrition specialist.
“If we don’t address this issue, as the Baby Boomers age we’re going to see more chronic disease and disability in older Iowans — which translates into lower quality of life and increased health care costs,” Francis said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical activity in older adulthood has many physical and mental health benefits. However, CDC research indicates 26 percent of older adults are inactive and another 41 percent are insufficiently active.
A new way to encourage physical activity in older adults is to introduce them to exergaming, video games that integrate game play with physical activity, Francis said. “Research has shown that exergaming is effective in improving quality of life and reducing symptoms of depression in older adults. However, what really makes the LIFE program special is the interaction between the young college students and the older adults.”
Iowa State University students majoring in dietetics, kinesiology, education, and human development and family studies were trained in using a Wii gaming system, leading interactive games, and offering assistance and applying safety precautions when working with older adults as they engage in physical activity.
The LIFE program was conducted at five congregate meal sites and two senior apartment complexes in rural Iowa for adults age 60 and older. The college student trainers and older adult participants met twice a week for eight weeks to play Wii® EA Active for an hour per session, combining aerobic and resistance activity, Francis explained.
“They played tennis and baseball and ran around a track — as they worked out in place while the Wii game was projected on a screen in front of them,” Francis said. “The students provided encouragement and assistance as the participants exercised.”
After the eight weeks, the participants were encouraged to continue the program on their own. Over the next 16 weeks they also received eight bi-weekly wellness newsletters targeting physical activity, nutrition and cognition.
“We saw a significant increase in physical activity and significant improvements in flexibility and hand grip strength among participants who reported being inactive at the start of the program,” Francis said.
“Our college students gained as well. They showed significant improvement in knowledge about aging and in their expectations regarding aging and mental health, aging and cognitive health and overall expectations about aging,” Francis said.
“After serving as trainers in the LIFE program, the students also were significantly less likely to believe in ageist stereotypes or to take actions to separate themselves from older adults,” she added.
In a recent LIFE program demonstration at the Iowa State campus, one participant said, “You can tell it’s good for everyone” as she pointed to the woman next to her, noting, “she’s 61 and I’m 83.”
“I’m full of arthritis, so this is keeping me moving,” she said.
The 61-year-old added, “It helped my shoulders too.”
“It’s good interaction between the young ones and us old ones,” the 83-year-old said.
The LIFE program has the potential to be a low-cost, community-based approach that promotes older adult health while connecting generations within society, Francis continued. The program is an example of community engagement and service learning. It meets a community need — helping older adults become more active — while offering students the opportunity to become more engaged as citizens as they serve in Iowa communities.
Francis and her colleagues want to expand the program throughout Iowa. The Iowa State research team includes Jennifer Margrett, an assistant professor in human development and family studies; Warren Franke, a professor in kinesiology; Marc Peterson, a program coordinator in food science and human nutrition; and Kara Strand, a graduate student in food science and human nutrition.
The LIFE program is funded by the Rural Health and Safety Education Competitive Program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
[PHOTO] Individual exergaming
[PHOTO] Group exergaming