Barriers to Exercise
If you’re a 40+ individual who works hard to stay in shape and can’t understand why your parent, grandparent or friend absolutely rejects exercise….consider this. Powerful unseen barriers exist to physical activity for many adults over 65. Cultural norms in the 1940’s-60’s discouraged girls and women from engaging in recreational exercise. School policies required dresses (unsuited to active play), recognized very few “appropriate” sports for women and failed to fund female teams; effectively relegating girls to a passive role watching boys play.
Exercise was considered unladylike at best and harmful at worst (to the “weaker” sex) and many women were counseled by physicians to avoid hard physical exertion for fear of injury. I’m only 49 but remember my mom telling me not to exercise so hard or I could hurt my “female organs”. At 11 years old I wasn’t sure what that meant but it didn’t sound good. I played sports anyway but when picking myself up off the field after a particularly hard hit glanced around to make sure nothing fell out!
Perception of exercise as potentially harmful to anyone “delicate” is pervasive even for people who personally believe in the benefits of exercise. I once taught a low-impact aerobics class when I was nine months pregnant. Participants aged 65-75 had been in the “Young at Heart” exercise program for at least 10 years and were personally committed to physical activity. However, they were visibly upset, convinced I was going to have the baby right there or injure myself if I didn’t stop exercising. This was a significant revelation to me because it translated to “exercise is great for you unless you are in delicate condition, then it could be harmful.” This belief is a significant barrier for individuals who have diminished physical function or those living with chronic conditions. Motivation to increase physical activity requires a belief it is both desirable and doable in light of health status.
Men aged 65+ can have their own negative associations related to physical activity. After a certain age physical activity just for fun was considered a frivolous use of time. “A man with so much time and energy should be doing something productive”, was the prevailing attitude. Many older men also relate fitness to the tough, grueling and painful exercise they did in military boot camp, concluding they don’t want any part of it, can’t be successful, and/or anything less really couldn’t do much good anyway.
The Industrial Revolution with its focus on removing the burden of physical exertion from daily life contributed its own barriers. New automation was sought after but expensive, forging a strong link between financial success and reduced physical activity. This generation started with a push lawnmower, graduated to a power mower, then to a riding lawnmower, and when they had really "made it" financially, hired someone else to do all that work.
When filtered through gender and generational bias, the message of physical activity as a positive aspiration is a pretty hard sell to many adults.