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Motivators, Barriers, and Beliefs Regarding Physical Activity in an Older Adult Population

Costello, Ellen PT, PhD1; Kafchinski, Marcia DPT, ATC1; Vrazel, JoEllen PhD, MA2; Sullivan, Patricia EdD3

Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy: July/September 2011 - Volume 34 - Issue 3 - p 138–147
doi: 10.1519/JPT.0b013e31820e0e71
Research Reports

Background and Purpose: Regular physical activity (PA) plays an important role in improving and maintaining one's health, especially as one ages. Although many older Americans are aware of the benefits of regular PA, the majority do not participate in regular PA that meets recommended guidelines. The purpose of this study was to gain insight into the motivators, barriers, and beliefs regarding PA of independent-living older adults with easy access to fitness facilities.

Methods: In this qualitative design, focus group interviews were used to explore the individual perceptions of physically active and inactive older adults regarding PA and exercise. Thirty-one older adults, over age 60 participated in focus group discussions regarding PA beliefs and behaviors. Groups were homogenous based on current PA behaviors. Demographic information was collected. Discussions were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim and deidentified. Two researchers independently coded for emergent themes. Interrater reliability was established (κ = 0.89). Peer review was used to further ensure trustworthiness and credibility.

Results: No significant differences were noted in age, body mass index, or educational levels between the physically active and inactive groups. Differences in perceptions were noted between the groups regarding the construct of PA, barriers to participation in regular PA, and the components of an ideal PA program. Physically inactive persons had much lower fitness expectations of a physically active older adult, more perceived barriers to regular PA, and required individual tailoring of a PA program if they were going to participate. In addition, inactive persons were intimidated by the fitness facilities and concerned about slowing others down in a group exercise setting. Both groups shared similar motivators to participate in PA, such as maintaining health and socialization; however, inactive persons also described PA as needing to be purposeful and fun.

Discussion and Conclusion: Physically inactive persons perceived themselves to be physically active, as their perception of PA was grounded in a social context. Although both groups shared some barriers to regular PA participation, physically active individuals developed strategies to overcome them. Issues relating to self-efficacy and stages of change need to be explored to address the individual perceptions and needs of inactive older adults if initiation or long-term adherence to a PA program is to be achieved.

1School of Medicine and Health Sciences, The George Washington University, Washington, District of Columbia.

2Healthy Communities Division, Indiana State Department of Health, Indianapolis.

3School of Public Health and Health Services, The George Washington University, Washington, District of Columbia.

Address correspondence to: Ellen Costello, PT, PhD, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, The George Washington University, 900 23rd St, NW, 6th floor, Washington, DC 20037 (

Copyright © 2011 the Section on Geriatrics of the American Physical Therapy Association
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