Fitness Program for Older Iowans Receives NIFA Funding

AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University researchers have received new funding to evaluate an intergenerational exercise program for older adults in 21 rural Iowa counties.

The Living (well through) Intergenerational Fitness and Exercise Program has been funded by the Rural Health and Safety Education Competitive Program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The LIFE program introduces older adults to exergaming, video games that integrate game play with physical activity. Younger adults (age 16 and older) serve as LIFE trainers for the older adult participants.

“In 2011 we piloted the LIFE program at five congregate meal sites and two senior apartment complexes for adults age 60 and older,” said Sarah Francis, an assistant professor and ISU Extension and Outreach state nutrition specialist. “During the pilot phase, the LIFE program showed that older adults age 60+ could improve their flexibility and hand grip strength in just six months with appropriate aerobic exercise and resistance activity. We also saw a reduction in ageist views held by the younger adult trainers.”

Noted Francis, “With the new funding, we will be able to evaluate the LIFE program in real life, rather than in relatively controlled research environments.”

21 Real Life Environments

Beginning in January 2013 the LIFE program will be tested in the following counties: Adair, Adams, Audubon, Butler, Calhoun, Clayton, Davis, Decatur, Fremont, Ida, Iowa, Keokuk, Louisa, Lyon, Pocahontas, Ringgold, Sac, Taylor, Van Buren, Wayne and Worth.

“These counties were selected because they are classified as completely rural by the Economic Research Service, which was a requirement of the funding agency,” Francis explained.

Promoting Health, Connecting Generations

“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 younger and older adults,” Francis said.

Local students have volunteered to serve as LIFE trainers and have completed extensive training on using the Kinect® gaming system, leading interactive games and offering assistance and applying safety precautions when working with older adults as they engage in physical activity.

“The trainers and older adult participants will meet twice a week for eight weeks to play Kinect Sports for an hour per session, combining aerobic and resistance activity,” Francis explained.

“They can play tennis and bowl and run around a track — as they work out in place while the Kinect game is shown on the television screen in front of them,” Francis said. “The trainers provide encouragement and assistance as the participants exercise.”

After the eight weeks, the participants will be encouraged to continue the program on their own. Over the next 16 weeks they also will receive eight bi-weekly newsletters targeting physical activity, nutrition and wellness.

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.

Iowa State began this project because physical inactivity among older adults is a growing public health issue, Francis said. “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.”

In addition to Francis, the Iowa State research team includes Jennifer Margrett, an associate professor in human development and family studies; and Warren Franke, a professor in kinesiology.