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University of Florida Study: Healthy Aging Depends On Social as Well As Physical Activity

  [ 16 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ] • January 30, 2002

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Pressing the flesh may be just as important as pumping iron if you want to age gracefully and healthily, a new University of Florida study suggests.

More than plain physical activity, human interaction from activities such as entertaining at home, taking day trips and getting involved with religious functions lead to more satisfaction with life as people get older, the study found.

“Older people often feel isolated, just as mothers do when their babies are born,” said Heather Gibson, a professor in UF’s department of recreation, parks and tourism and a core faculty member in the Institute on Aging. “Whether it’s joining a senior center or having a group to hang out with, doing certain things makes their lives more fulfilling.”

“Having people to talk to and do things with is important for people of all stages of life, but we found it’s particularly true for older adults,” she said.

Gibson and Candace Ashton-Shaeffer, also a professor in UF’s department of recreation, parks and tourism, and an Institute on Aging faculty member, surveyed 157 retired women in Florida 55 and older about their leisure activities. In summer 2001, they interviewed 24 of those women about the importance of leisure in their lives. The participants, obtained from a commercial data base company, represent all geographic regions of the state.
The universal stereotype of senior citizens playing Bingo proved groundless, as only 4 percent of the women surveyed said they played the game, Ashton-Shaeffer said.

“There are people who play Bingo and take it very seriously, but it’s a small number of people who do it on a regular basis and make it a normal part of their lives,” she said.

Nor did handiwork emerge as a leading hobby among older women. Few sewed (4 percent) or knitted (6 percent), she said.

Far more common were reading (71 percent) and pursuing religious activities (53 percent), Ashton-Shaeffer said. Other popular pastimes included bicycling, gardening, talking on the telephone and watching television.

Even tennis, swimming, golf and exercise classes were more frequent forms of recreation than bingo or sewing for this generation, which came of age before Title IX gains for female athletes, Gibson said.

“For much of the century, there has not been a lot of support for women to be active, yet we see a large number who have gym memberships and are pursuing a wide range of physical activities,” she said.

The UF study found that the women surveyed viewed retirement as a chance to finally do things their way. “There was a sense of freedom - freedom from work, freedom from homemaking and freedom from child care,” Gibson said. “They kept saying over and over ‘Now is our time,’” and they were usually referring to themselves and their husbands.”

However, some reported that health or financial constraints prevented them from doing some of the things they had looked forward to as young adults, Gibson said. “What came out was, ‘Now that we have the time, it’s a shame that we’re too old to enjoy it.’”

Those still able were quite active, as in the case of several retirees so involved in volunteering that the activity took on career-like characteristics, Ashton-Shaeffer said. One woman set up a home office entirely for this purpose, while another hired an assistant, she said.

But health didn’t have to be perfect in order for retirement to be rewarding for older women, the researchers found. “They may have arthritis or Parkinson’s disease, but as long as they can continue to do the things they enjoy doing, they’re quite happy,” Gibson said.

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