Background Physical activity has significant physical and mental health benefits for older adults. However, older adults tend to find it difficult to meet physical activity targets, and interventions to promote activity in later life have typically produced only small or short-lived changes. We aimed to explore perceptions, practices and motivations relating to active and sedentary living in later life. Framed within Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, we described internalised motivations and lifelong habits shaped within social worlds and structures.
Methods Two researchers interviewed 27 participants aged 65–80 from the EPIC-Norfolk cohort study, purposefully selected by gender, age, occupational class, whether living alone or with a partner, and step count. They then joined 17 of them for about 25 hours of participant observation focused on time-bound activities chosen by the participants such as walks, shopping, gardening and visits to workplaces. Thematic content analysis of transcripts and ethnographic field notes was conducted with the help of NVivo10.
Results We described the physical “activeness” of older adults as the interplay between lifelong preferences, habitual practices and social context. We identified three (not necessarily exclusive) “ideal types”. “Exercisers” had habitually engaged in sports and structured exercise throughout their life, but often experienced barriers to continuing their preferred activities into older age. Although they were therefore not necessarily the most active participants in the study, they nonetheless aimed to overcome limitations such as physical ill-health by taking up less strenuous activities such as walking. “Out-and-about-ers” described their activeness in terms of pursuing social engagement and a variety of interests. Barriers included losing social motivators, for example through loss of partners, friends or dogs. However, these participants had purposefully continued activities into retirement, including continuing or returning to paid work or volunteering in their communities, and many belonged to the more active group of participants (with higher step counts). A final type described people who preferred more solitary, sedentary activities. While they did not actively seek activeness, our data also indicated potential ways of encouraging this. Most participants described their neighbourhoods as enabling purposeful walking in terms of easy access to local shops or public transport. Others talked about new social responsibilities such as caring for grandchildren or other relatives.
Conclusion Promoting physical activity among older people may require more attention to enabling people to overcome specific barriers relevant to different types of aspirations and motivations. Our provisional typology could be corroborated in larger quantitative studies.