(COLLEGE STATION, TX) — While the evidence on effective programs to help middle-age and older adults improve their levels of physical activity – behaviors critical to health and independence in later life – is growing, research-based programs are not often widely implemented and evaluated in “real world” settings that strive to reach more diverse population groups than those taking part in highly controlled research studies.

Now, researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health and elsewhere have found two programs, Active Living Every Day and Active Choices, can be effective when offered through community-based organizations reaching adults from a variety of racial, economic and geographic backgrounds.

Their findings are in the July issue of the American Journal of Public Health and describe results of the first year of Active for Life®, a national initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Headquartered at HSC-SRPH, Active for Life® looks at the implementation of the Active Living Every Day and Active Choices programs in nine community-based organizations throughout the United States. The project is being evaluated and analyzed by researchers from the University of South Carolina.

“Our findings are important because increasingly, researchers are being asked to document the public health reach of effective programs and move beyond purely efficacy-based studies,” said Sara Wilcox, Ph.D., University of South Carolina researcher and lead author. “Our initial work is demonstrating that evidence-based physical activity programs can be successfully translated into community settings. We are reaching diverse populations, and we are seeing impressive increases in physical activity among program participants.”

Marcia Ory, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor and program director of social and behavioral health with the HSC-SRPH and Active for Life® national program director, emphasized the significance of physical activity programs, along with lifestyle modifications.

“Research shows that many of the symptoms of deterioration that come with age are a matter of mindset and environment – not genetics,” said Dr. Ory, a study co-author. “People who are physically active, eat a healthy diet, avoid tobacco products, practice other healthy behaviors, and live in activity-friendly environments reduce their risk of chronic diseases and have half the rate of disability of those who do not.”

Researchers evaluated data from 838 adults who participated in the first year of the Active for Life® program. Participants were targeted to broadly represent the age-50-and-older population in the United States that is at-risk due to lack of physical activity. Those selected were sedentary or irregularly active prior to engaging in the program, tended to have chronic health conditions and were likely to be overweight or obese.

In more typical, controlled research intervention programs, participants have tended to be primarily white and more highly educated, with fewer chronic health conditions than other populations in the same age range.

“Our findings are similar to those of programs that have been implemented in more structured research settings,” Dr. Wilcox said. “When we evaluated participants of the first year of the program, we found that moderate to vigorous physical activity increased by about two hours per week, and total physical activity increased by more than three-and-a-half hours per week. Program participants also are reporting a greater satisfaction with body function, which is important to older adults because of their increased risk of losing independence.”

Terry Bazzarre, Ph.D., senior program officer at the RWJF and study co-author, agrees.

“Understanding how to better deliver physical activity programs is important because about two-thirds of older Americans are not getting enough physical activity, which puts them at increased risk of chronic illness, disability and loss of independence because they are sedentary,” Dr. Bazzarre said.

In addition, Dr. Ory points out that preventing health problems is one of the few known ways to stem rising health care costs.

“We know that the benefits of regular physical activity are considerable,” Dr. Ory said. “Physical activity helps to control weight; contributes to healthy bones, muscles and joints; reduces falls among the elderly; decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression; and can lessen the need for hospitalizations, physician visits and medications. For the aging population, physical activity can help people maintain independent living and enhance their overall quality of life. Research has shown that even among frail and very old adults, physical activity can improve mobility and functioning.”

As research continues, Dr. Wilcox anticipates Active for Life® will be a useful model in how to implement research-based programs at the community level. It also will offer insights into effective adaptation and sustainability of such programs.

Active for Life® programs are offered through Berkeley City Health Department and San Mateo County Health Services, Berkeley and San Mateo, Calif.; Blue Shield of California, Woodland Hills; Church Health Center of Memphis, Memphis, Tenn.; Council on Aging of Southwestern Ohio, Cincinnati; Greater Detroit Area Health Council; FirstHealth of the Carolinas, Pinehurst, N.C.; Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington, Inc., Rockville, Md.; The OASIS Institute, St. Louis, Mo., San Antonio, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pa.; and YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.

The Arnold School of Public Health is located at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The school is one of 37 accredited schools of public health in the United States and one of only three schools of public health named for an individual. The Arnold School is known nationally and internationally for its research in exercise science. Dr. Larry Durstine, chairman of the department of exercise science, is president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 30 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org.

The Texas A&M Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research. Its six components located in communities throughout Texas are Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, the School of Rural Public Health, and the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy.

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