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Educating and motivating Senior Fitness Test participants

This is an excerpt from Senior Fitness Test Manual-2nd Edition by Roberta Rikli & C. Jessie Jones.

After administering the SFT to your clients or program participants, we suggest that you meet with them, either individually or as a group, to give them their feedback. This provides an ideal time to educate and motivate about the importance of being physically active and fit in later life. You especially should point out the strong relationship between people's activity level and their fitness scores (surprisingly, many people are not aware of this) and the fact that as much as half of the typical decline associated with aging may not be due to aging at all, but rather to disuse—that is, people's tendency to become less and less active as they age.

Point out to your clients that as people are living longer, it is becoming increasingly important that they pay attention to their fitness level if they want to remain healthy and independent during their later years. Learning that participation in physical activity can help delay the onset of physical frailty and extend their physical independence can be very motivating. Statistics indicate that many older adults by their late 70s or early 80s, particularly those with sedentary lifestyles, will lose the strength and endurance they need to perform common everyday activities, such as climbing stairs, walking to the store, and taking care of their own personal and household activities, unless steps are taken to increase their activity level. For many, maintaining a physically active lifestyle can easily add 10 years or more to their functional or active life span, thus significantly delaying the onset of physical frailty.

It is especially critical for older people to understand the importance of preventing the viciouscycle that occurs for so many—the cycle that begins with becoming less active as they age, which in turn leads to lower energy levels (less desire to be active), which then results in even further reductions in activity, then further declines in energy levels, and on and on. Eventually, this downward spiral can result in people's strength and endurance declining to the point that it is hazardous to their health and their ability to carry out normal everyday activities. Scores obtained on the SFT items can provide important feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of older adults and whether or not their physical declines are placing them at risk for losing their functional mobility.

The good news that you can share with your clients, however, is that no matter what their age or current physical condition, it is always possible to improve their level of fitness by increasing their activity level. You can tell them, citing research reported in national and international physical activity guidelines, that people of all ages—even into their late 80s and 90s—have experienced significant gains in fitness after beginning exercise programs, gains that have led to improved functional performance (e.g., walking and balance) and, for some, the ability to discard their canes and walk without assistance. Such guidelines have recently been developed by the World Health Organization and by researchers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere (ACSM, 2009; Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2011; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008; UK Department of Health, Physical Activity, Health Improvement and Protection, 2011; World Health Organization, 2010).

You can also motivate your clients by sharing success stories from your own program. Older people are interested in the activities of their peers and are often motivated by their successes. In our program, for example, a 79-year-old woman who had several chronic health conditions and was on 13 medications scored below average on most test items when she first came in to be tested. She was so surprised at how poorly she scored compared with others her age that she immediately hired a personal trainer. Six months later, when she came back for a reevaluation, she not only scored in the normal range on most tests but was also down to taking only 4 medications and saying she felt like a new person. She also looked like a new person—full of energy and smiles. Certainly we are not suggesting that exercise can be used to cure medical problems, but we do know it can help in managing numerous conditions.

Even relatively small success stories can be interesting and meaningful. One woman, after 8 weeks in our program, was thrilled when she found she had gained enough upper-body strength to be able, for the first time, to pull down the back door (hatch) in her minivan without having to ask for help. Another woman reported a tremendous gain in self-confidence when her lower-body strength (and balance) improved to the point she could get up from the floor easily without help, something she had been unable to do for some time. We could go on and on with stories about how increased physical activity level has improved people's quality of life.

Beginning or modifying an exercise program, however, generally takes more than a motivational talk about the value of exercise and a few motivational stories. Changing behavior in people is difficult and almost always requires applying some type of behavior modification strategy. One behavior modification technique that has been successful in changing exercise behavior, especially for those who have already expressed a desire to change, is goal setting.

More Excerpts From Senior Fitness Test Manual 2nd Edition