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Cross-Cultural Lessons in Elder Exercise

Armen Hareyan's picture


According to a 2003 national survey, one-third of Americans 65 and older and a majority of those over age 75 had not done any exercise during their leisure time in the past month. The statistics make it sound like a sedentary existence is simply the lot of old age, but how do elderly citizens of the rest of the world compare to Americans when it comes to physical activity?

It's difficult to say, mostly because few other countries measure physical activity the way Americans do, according to Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Ph.D., head of the department of kinesiology and community health at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There are very few cross-cultural studies, because there is no sense yet of the relevant variables to be measured," Chodzko-Zajko says.

Chodzko-Zajko says that the American standards for physical activity are driven by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria of minutes of exercise per week at a particular maximum heart rate, concepts that are not formally tracked or even sometimes culturally shared in other countries.

"We have only approximate numbers for other countries compared to the CDC numbers," Chodzko-Zajko says.

This is not to say that other countries are less worried about the fitness of their older citizens, he adds. "There are probably no cultures in the world in which people are not concerned about inactivity and obesity levels and their society becoming more sedentary."

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And despite the formal monitoring by the CDC, "it's probably true to say that the United States is one of the most sedentary of developed nations," Chodzko-Zajko says.

For instance, most researchers think that older people in Asian countries are more physically active that their U.S. counterparts, Chodzko-Zajko says. "Older adults are even more active than middle-aged individuals in Asia, which may be a reflection of the cultural expectations that once people have more time available and are not working as many hours, they have greater time for activity."

In Asian countries in particular, but also in other parts of the world, "exercise" includes a much larger set of activities, from morning tai chi in the park to walking to everyday destinations such as grocery stores and friends' homes, Chodzko-Zajko says. In the United States, "the challenge is to escape from the lifestyle factors that encourage older Americans to be more dependent," such as the reliance on cars to get everywhere.

Chodzko-Zajko says one lesson all Americans could learn from other countries is "the idea that it's important to build physical activity into everyday lifestyle choices" and provide more places for activity such as parks and walking paths.

"In many Western cultures, people have begun to think of physical activity as something to do with special clothes in a special place," Chodzko-Zajko says.

However, Chodzko-Zajko says he is