This guest blog was contributed by Dr Grania Fenton, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds.
As more of us are living longer, more of us are living with the effects of cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes. This does not mean that cardiovascular events are inevitable though. In fact, they are usually preventable, as 80% of factors contributing to them are lifestyle related, i.e. caused by things such as an unhealthy diet and a lack of physical activity.
Active lifestyle schemes, like the one at the Hamara Community Centre in Leeds, aim to help people change their lifestyles by providing group activity and education sessions to help them become more active and eat more healthily, and so reduce their risk of a cardiovascular event.
We wanted to find out what older adults referred to the scheme thought about the scheme and the things that helped them to lead healthy lifestyles or got in the way, as well as ageing and health in general. We spoke to 8 women and 5 men between the ages of 64 and 82 (average age 69).
All had been referred to the scheme by their GP or practice nurse, all but one were retired, and whilst six were still attending the scheme regularly, five had attended regularly in the past, one had attended infrequently and one had never attended.
Being healthy: what helps and what gets in the way?
Participants spoke of many factors that helped them live a healthy lifestyle or got in the way; many of which have been found in previous research by our team. They said that believing they were responsible for change, believing that it was appropriate and that outcomes would be positive, or fearing for their future if they didn’t make changes helped them adopt a healthier lifestyle.
Having support to change, having access to local, affordable facilities and knowing how to change and integrate it with other aspects of their daily lives also helped. In general, a lack of these things were seen as barriers to living healthy lifestyles, as were their previous views on ageing and health.
Ageing and healthy lifestyles – views prior to attending
Many participants spoke of an increased awareness of their health as they got older, but said they used to have quite negative views about ageing which prevented them from leading healthier lifestyles:
‘(When I was younger) I think I took living for granted… I thought …yeah I’m alive now, and if I go when I’m 50, that’s it.’ (Current regular attender)
They also spoke of the negative views of some healthcare professionals, which then influenced their own views of ageing and health:
‘A lot of doctors (have the) ‘it’s because you’re old…you can expect it at your age’ kind of attitude. Then you start to think ‘I’m 65, what can I expect?’’ (Past attender)
Others spoke of a fear of what would happen if they started to change their lifestyles, and said in the past this had prevented them from becoming more active:
‘I started thinking well, size of me, I’ll have a b****y heart attack if I start doing exercise.’ (Current regular attender)
Ageing, healthy lifestyles and the active lifestyle scheme – views after attending
Participants spoke of the positive impact that attending the active lifestyle scheme had on their lives. They said it had helped them to access knowledge about health difficulties, causes and prevention, and had given them the tools they needed to know how to live a more healthy lifestyle. They said they now ate more healthily and were more active, and many spoke of physical benefits like losing weight (the participant who feared exercise would induce a heart attack has lost more than 5 stone through exercise and a healthier diet, and not had any heart problems).
Others said they had become fitter and stronger and reduced their blood pressure, and these positive outcomes mean that many participants’ risks of a cardiovascular event was reduced.
Others spoke of the pleasure they got from attending, with some also reporting improved mood and self-confidence. Some of those who had attended in the past said they felt they could now continue to be healthy on their own, whereas others said they needed a bit more support and might return to the scheme. Those who still attended said the support they felt from being in a group with people like themselves and the staff were very important to them, and helped them to stay on track.
Participants also said they’d learned that age was not a barrier to becoming more healthy and getting more out of life:
‘They’ve put into us mind ‘yes you can go on living older, and you can be healthier older’.’ (Current regular attender)
‘one of the things I’ve learned from Hamara is that old age, old age is in fact not a disease on its own.’ (Past attender )
It may be of interest that the person who chose to not attend was already very active, and had been unable to attend the group due to work commitments.
So, what do these results mean?
- Lifestyle change, in terms of a healthier diet and increasing levels of physical activity, can reduce risk of a cardiovascular event regardless of age and regardless of people’s initial expectations about what might be possible for them because of their age, health or size.
- Lifestyle change can also be associated with other physical, social and psychological benefits.
- Negative expectations of age, amongst older adults or healthcare professionals, are not necessarily true, and can and should be challenged, or they will get in the way of change.
- Active lifestyle schemes like the one at Hamara can help address these negative expectations and other barriers to change, as can healthcare professionals.
- Older adults who read this blog and can relate to some of ‘barriers’ or ‘pre-change’ views should look at the resources below and speak to a healthcare professional about what kind of support and facilities they can access to help them improve their lives and challenge such barriers.
- Active lifestyle schemes like the one at Hamara should consider that people have different needs in terms of the types of support they might need, and also consider offering groups at different times of day to accommodate people who may have other commitments.
Age UK aims to be a centre of expertise on ageing issues and a knowledge hub for all information relating to older people. Find out more about Age UK’s Knowledge Hub.