Let’s get physical: We know it’s potentially life-saving, so how do we get that ‘exercise benefits’ message across?

Woman in Red Hoodie and Black Pants Running on Gray Asphalt Road

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

PHAA’s Note: This article does not constitute medical advice. Please see your doctor before starting exercise or physical activity.

Is anyone else struggling to live up to their ambitious new year’s resolution to do a minimum of one hour’s exercise every day for this calendar year?

In my own circumstances, as a COVID close contact, and currently enduring seven days’ isolation, I’m already feeling I’ve bitten off more than I can chew (pass that leftover Christmas cake).

Notwithstanding the numerous challenges which come our way, the experts continue to exalt us to ‘get physical’ at every available opportunity.

The World Health Organization strongly supports the positive association between increased levels of physical activity and improved health. Researchers say that appropriate physical activity levels are also critical for older adults (ok, noted).

Exercise saves lives

A 2019 study cited previous research stating that annually, 3.2 million deaths across the globe were linked to a lack of physical activity, with worsening physical activity levels occurring in industrialised countries. The study by Professor Denise Taylor noted the critical importance of completing five days of moderate-to-vigorous level physical activity weekly, and “including both aerobic and strengthening exercises” for better health outcomes. Professor Taylor also highlighted the current low levels of older adults who achieve this objective, and the difficulties involved in improving these levels in older people.

This challenge has only been exacerbated in the past two years with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Across Australia and the world, governments have rightly promoted ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’, in order to protect the most vulnerable (including older people). However, it has now become more difficult to maintain the right levels of exercise and physical activity.

Early evidence indicates that the influence of COVID-19 safety measures has resulted in an increase in older adults performing less physical activity, which clearly has serious consequences when considering both their future health on an individual level, and the potential effect on health services.

Even before the pandemic struck, older Aussies were struggling to get their requisite weekly dose, with three quarters of Australians adults aged 65+ not meeting physical activity guidelines.

One study also noted previous research and a government report stating that among older people who exercise, walking was the preferred form of physical activity, with minimal people performing more intense types of exercise (guilty as charged, your honour).

ANZJPH report

A report published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, titled ‘Communicating with older people about physical activity’, and led by PHAA member Professor Simone Pettigrew, explores how best to get the message out to encourage higher levels of activity among older Australians.

Targeting people aged 50+, a total of 1,200 people were surveyed to assess the effect of advertising and other promotional material. A video with “uplifting music” was created, combining several clips of older adults performing moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity, including tennis and swimming.

While the overall survey responses were mixed,

  • Males typically found the video advertisements less motivating than females did
  • Those who engaged in higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had higher levels of feeling “determined, hopeful, inspired and interested” compared to those with lower levels.
  • Younger respondents had a higher likelihood of feeling inspired by the advertisements compared to older participants.

The survey’s findings indicated that the ads were most effective when depicting relevant physical activity being performed by a wide range of older people.

Making it real

The study reported that participants enjoyed seeing people of a similar age to them performing “realistic” physical activity in these advertisements.

“It wasn’t showing ridiculous 20+ people all going flat out with their chosen sport. Showing older people made it feel more relatable to me personally, but also that you don’t have to be young to participate in sports. (Female, 50 years)”


The video also seemed to support already-engaged individuals’ positive opinions on their moderate-to-vigorous exercise level.

“Loved to see the mature runner (I run myself) – made me happy! (F, 60 years)”


Positive emotional reactions

Various positive emotional reactions were observed in response to the advertisement, particularly in females.

“Fun, happiness, sociability, feeling great, and made me smile. (F, 73 years)”

“It relates to me as I’m a senior person. It was lovely to see older people getting out and being active. (F, 66 years)”


Individual-specific responses

In the advertisement, survey participants singled out specific exercise types that particularly engaged them, due to either the exercise’s appeal to them as an individual, or the individuals’ ability to perform a specific type of exercise in spite of individual limitations.

“Made me feel I should do more exercise. Definitely not keen on bike riding, running, or tennis, but swimming and dancing looked good. (F, 70 years)”


Acknowledgement of the importance of physical activity

Some inactive survey participants acknowledged the importance of physical activity, especially for their age range, and themselves as individuals.

“I really should do more exercise as I’m not fit. (M, 77 years)”


Straightforward messaging

The advertisement’s simple message, with no ‘hard sell’ element, was appreciated by some survey participants.

“I liked the message delivery – simple and effective. (M, 65 years)”

“No hype. No hoopla. Just older people happily exercising. (M, 54 years)”


Negative survey responses

Negative responses from participants included that ones that felt the advertisement did not consider older people who were not able-bodied and may be unable to perform these types of exercise.

“It assumes that all older people can do these things. That is just not true. (M, 66 years)”

“Hated that it only showed people without injuries. (F, 67 years)”



The paper concluded by noting the following main points:

There was a positive overall response to the study’s advertisements, indicating that this type of health promotion could be effective for older people, including pre-retirement aged individuals.

There were minimal differences in results when considering location and socioeconomic status, indicating that these types of advertisements could be used across the varying demographic of older people.

In the latter stages of life, females’ levels of physical activity diminish significantly compared to males’. As females generally produced higher ratings in measures used to evaluate responses to this study’s advertisement, the authors wrote that “the needs of females as a communications audience may require greater attention in the development and dissemination of physical activity promotion campaigns”.

Footnote:  The ANZJPH article ‘Communicating with older people about physical activity’ was jointly authored by Simone Pettigrew, Michelle Jongenelis, Rajni Rai, Ben Jackson and Robert Newton.

Disclaimer: Do not use any information in this piece to treat or prevent any condition. This information is not a substitute for the advice of a healthcare professional. Consult your general practitioner before starting any new therapeutic or exercise program. We accept no liability for damage, injury or loss due to information provided.

Image: Centre for Ageing Better/Pexels

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