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The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) is aiming to better serve the physical activity needs of a significantly increasing segment of the Canadian population: women aged 55 to 70.

CAAWS recognizes that the size of this group will only continue to grow as the large numbers of baby boomers get older—the youngest among them are already close to 50. Also, women are often interested in different fitness pursuits than men. And finally, many women today are keenly interested in maintaining their health and taking action to deal with the health concerns that come with age—for example, high blood pressure and arthritis.

The Project
Shelley Callaghan, coordinator of a four-year CAAWS project called Physical Activity for Women 55-70, explains the genesis of the project. “The baby boomers were telling us that they saw physical activity programs being offered for younger adults and seniors, but not for them. The seniors programs tended to attract people over 70, and the adult programs targeted a younger group.”

The purpose of this project is to increase physical activity opportunities for women 55-70 by finding out more about the types of physical activity programs these women would like to see, the barriers they face, and how current programs could be adapted to better meet their needs. Increasing physical opportunities for women in this age group is a major concern. In 2003, 53% of women aged 55-64 were not active enough to receive health benefits, and this statistic increased to 58% among women aged 65-74.

The project began with research (an environmental scan) and 38 focus groups held in 10 locations across the country that involved active women, less active women and community stakeholders. “We asked them what they wanted, and they told us,” Callaghan says. “They made suggestions such as providing instructors that are the same age as the participants, introducing participants to each other and ‘doing something other than mall walking.’”

Then, in years two and three, CAAWS focused on developing resources, increasing awareness, holding community workshops to share what had been learned, and evaluating the project’s success. “We are working to raise awareness of easy changes that community recreation leaders can make such as communicating the specifics of when, where, and even what to wear,” says Callaghan. “The focus group participants said, ‘Tell us everything.’” As part of the project, CAAWS has also produced fact sheets and relevant statistics, developed a website, and created a CD of photos because women said, “I don’t see myself in the community’s recreation guide.”

The project now has small pilot projects in Ontario and B.C. that are funded by provincial agencies. And with funds from the Public Health Agency of  Canada, CAAWS is training four master trainers in each province and four in the territories so they will have the capacity to deliver workshops and present the whole package to stakeholders.

Key Findings
The focus groups and other research initiatives yielded some interesting results. Following are just a few of the highlights:

  • Barriers to physical activity among women 55-70 include weather, darkness, availability of transportation and cost as well as body image, fear of falling or failure, and putting others' needs first. In addition, they do not want to be perceived as “seniors,” and therefore they require different programs and services that reflect that attitude.
  • Women’s programs work. Women are often more comfortable in a class or activity specifically designed for them.
  • Including a social aspect often makes fitness programs more attractive.

Practitioners’ Comments 
Lisa Paarup, program director at the Don Wheaton YMCA in Edmonton, attended one of the CAAWS workshops and was interested to learn that many of the activities of this downtown facility are on the right track. The Don Wheaton YMCA attracts mostly younger adults who live and/or work in the area. However, the YMCA has an agreement with SAGE, the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton, to provide access for people over 55. So far, 70 people have signed up, and most participate in Active Older Adults fitness classes.

“The Active Older Adults program is not age-restricted,” Paarup says. “It can serve the needs of people in their late 40s with limited mobility or those in their 80s who want to stay fit.” The activities offered include aqua fit, yoga, tai chi and cardio on land (e.g., working with balance balls).

“As I learned in the workshop,” Paarup says, “women over 55 often discover their need for physical activity when they encounter a health issue. Perhaps their physician, physiotherapist or other health professional has recommended exercise as a way to control or improve a condition they are dealing with. Some have not been active for a long time. So the instructors are trained to motivate and encourage them.”

Another workshop participant, Terry Skidnuk, a recreation programmer for older adults, is employed by the County of Strathcona and is based out of Millennium Place. He is currently on a steering committee planning an active living conference directed at men and women “55 and better.” (The county has decided to avoid using the term “senior,” which is in keeping with the results of the CAAWS research.) The conference will include information sessions on a variety of topics that are of interest to older adults such as fitness, nutrition, leisure and travel.

As well, Skidnuk is involved in the fitness aspect of the county’s older adults plan, which recognizes how quickly the population is aging. By 2031, about one-quarter of the county’s population will be 65 and over with many more falling into the 50-plus category.

The county conducted a large survey of older adults 55-plus and a Next Generation survey for those aged 45-54. One of the results, Skidnuk says, was that participants in the 55-plus fitness classes were primarily women. “They are recognizing the value of activity in their lives and the importance of maintaining their independence,” he notes. Another finding, again similar to the CAAWS results, is that there is a “big social component” in successful fitness pursuits for this age group.

In the coming years we can expect to see many more physical activity programs of all sorts for women 55-70. The interest level is clearly building, and the population graphs speak for themselves. “This is only the beginning,” says Callaghan. “If you’re not preparing now for the changing demographics, you are going to get run over.”

Learn More

CAAWS Physical Activity and Women Aged 55-70 Project
Learn more about this project by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS), and access some of their great resources.

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