Gallup: Exercise Upticks Slightly, and Benefits Seniors the Most

While exercise tends to taper off after age 65, the findings show the mental health benefits are greater for seniors who keep moving, which is an important lesson for health professionals.
Published Online: September 19, 2017
Mary Caffrey
Americans are exercising more, and fewer of us aren’t exercising at all. But how much activity we get varies by gender, age, ethnicity, geography, and especially by income, according to survey results released today by Gallup and Sharecare. The findings also show the positive benefits of exercise for seniors if that health message can get through.

Results are based on calls to 269,500 adults age 18 and older between January 2016 and July 2017; calls went to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Young adults exercise the most, with those 18 to 29 having a 10-point higher rate than those 65 and older. Men exercise more than women. Hispanics exercise the most (55%), followed by Asians.

The good news. the percentage of people exercising 30 minutes or more at least 3 days a week has gone up 2 percentage points since 2008, to 53.4% in 2016. Over that same period, the percentage who reported not exercising at all fell 3 points to 27.4%. While those percentages sound small, in raw numbers this translates into 5 million more people hitting the threshold of exercising 3 days per week, according to Dan Witters, research director for the Gallup-Sharecare Well-being Index.

The bad news. A ranking of cities by how much they exercise reveals some familiar patterns. Except for the resort of Hilton Head, South Carolina, the cities that exercise the most are largely in the West; of the cities that don’t, 5 are in the South and 4 are in the Midwest, regions with less wealth and higher rates of obesity (Toledo and Akron, Ohio, account for 2 of the cities).

The paradox. The questions Gallup asked reveal interesting news for seniors. While the amount of exercise tapers off as Americans get older, the benefits soar. Much more so than younger adults, those over age 65 reported larger gains in emotional well-being from exercising 3 days a week for at least 30 minutes. Compared with those who did not exercise at all, those 65 and older who exercised 3 days a week were:

·         32% more likely to be optimistic about their lives
·         42% less likely to be diagnosed with depression
·         27% less likely to experience daily stress

Witters said Gallup didn’t select the cutoff of 3 days or more at random; scientific studies show that’s where the benefits start to accrue for people.

“There’s a pretty strong relationship between exercise and well-being and it’s not just physical health—there are some less intuitive things,” he said. While links between exercise and lower rates of smoking or chronic disease make obvious sense, the higher level of optimism about the future among those who exercise regularly might be unexpected.

This is an important lesson for physicians and caregivers, Witters said. As seniors slow down, it’s important to encourage them to keep moving because the benefits are so profound.

The communities. What distinguishes places that exercise? They are built that way, Witters said. These cities tend to have public transit, are friendly to bicycles, and have open green spaces. Public policy can shape these things, so a community that isn’t exercising can change, he said.

But there are clearly connections among wealth, employment and exercise. When asked what accounts for the uptick of recent years, Witters noted that when the Well-being Index began, the recession had hit and many people were out of work.

“When you have a job, it doesn’t ensure a culture of well-being, but it helps,” he said. “More and more employers, in fact, are really getting on board with the wellness movement.”

Getting people to exercise starts with creating the culture, Witters said. Whether it’s the mayor of the town or the CEO of the company, talking about it every day is essential. “Culture is not driven from the bottom up, it’s driven from the top down,” he said.


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