No. 4, October 2004
Older Adult Perspectives on
Physical Activity and Exercise: Voices From Multiple Cultures
Basia Belza, PhD, RN, Julie Walwick, MSW, Sharyne Shiu-Thornton,
PhD, Sheryl Schwartz, MPA, Mary Taylor, BSN, RN, James LoGerfo, MD, MPH
Suggested citation for this article: Belza B, Walwick J, Shiu-Thornton S,
Schwartz S, Taylor M, LoGerfo J. Older adult perspectives on physical activity and
exercise: voices from multiple cultures. Prev Chronic Dis [serial
online] 2004 Oct [date cited]. Available from: URL:
Increasing physical activity is a goal of Healthy People 2010. Although
the health benefits of physical activity are documented, older adults are less
physically active than any other age group. The purpose of this study was to
examine barriers and facilitators to physical activity and exercise among
underserved, ethnically diverse older adults.
Seventy-one older adults were recruited through community agencies to
participate in seven ethnic-specific focus groups: American Indian/Alaska
Native, African American, Filipino, Chinese, Latino, Korean, and Vietnamese.
Groups were conducted in the participants’ primary language and ranged in size
from 7–13 participants. Mean age was 71.6 years (range from 52 to 85 years; SD
+ 7.39). Professional translators transcribed audiotapes into the
language of the group and then translated the transcript into English.
Transcripts were systematically reviewed using content analysis.
Suggested features of physical activity programs to enhance participation among
ethnically diverse minority older adults included fostering relationships among
participants; providing culture-specific exercise; offering programs at
residential sites; partnering with and offering classes prior to or after social
service programs; educating families about the importance of physical activity
for older adults and ways they could help; offering low- or no-cost classes; and
involving older adults in program development. Walking was the exercise of
choice across all ethnic groups. Health served as both a motivator and a barrier
to physical activity. Other factors influencing physical activity were weather,
transportation, and personal safety.
Findings from this study suggest strategies for culture-specific programming of
community-based physical activity programs.
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Because of the known health benefits of physical activity, increasing
physical activity is a goal of Healthy People 2010 (1). The health benefits of physical activity for older adults are well documented
(2,3). Moderate levels of physical activity have been shown to reduce the risk
of dying from heart disease (4), reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety
(5), and assist in managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension
(2,6). In spite of this evidence, many older adults remain physically inactive
Ethnic minority communities in the United States experience a high prevalence
of chronic diseases that may be prevented or ameliorated by physical activity.
African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Filipinos have a higher
incidence than whites of diabetes, hypertension, stroke and overall mortality
(7-9). Yet adults from ethnic minority groups engage in leisure-time physical
activities less frequently than do adults in the rest of the population (2,10-12).
Furthermore, Crespo et al found that physical activity was positively associated with
acculturation (10). Often, older adults in immigrant communities are less
acculturated and are therefore more likely to remain sedentary.
Despite the known benefits of physical activity and the health needs of
ethnic minorities, information is limited on factors that encourage older,
ethnic minority adults to be physically active (13). Little is known about how
these communities perceive physical activity and the factors that encourage or
discourage individuals from being physically active.
To better understand the needs and desires for physical activity programs
among older, ethnic minority adults, we conducted focus groups with older adults
from seven cultural groups, including five groups of older immigrants. The
purposes of the study were to 1) identify barriers and facilitators to engaging
in physical activity and 2) broaden our understanding of culturally appropriate
physical activity and exercise programs.
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Focus groups were conducted with older adults to explore the motivations and
barriers of physical activity within each of seven cultural/linguistic groups:
American Indian and Native Alaskan, African American, Vietnamese,
Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Korean, Tagalog-speaking
immigrants from the Philippines, and Spanish-speaking immigrants primarily from
Mexico, and also from El Salvador, Columbia, Nicaragua, Peru, and Equador. The
focus groups were conducted in the primary languages of the participants.
Participants were recruited from local community agencies and represented large
minority communities in the Seattle area, as well as groups that have been
typically underserved by existing programs promoting physical activity.
Recruitment took place in October 2002, and focus groups were conducted during
November 2002 through February 2003.
Four community agencies partnered with the university-based research team.
These four community partners were social and health service providers that meet
the needs of the following ethnic groups: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,
African Americans, American Indians, and Latinos. Representatives from each of
the agencies met with the research team to strategize the implementation of the
focus groups and to develop a discussion/interview guide. Agency representatives
identified facilitators and note takers for each focus group from staff members who were culturally
and linguistically competent.
Facilitators and note takers recruited participants from clients at their
agency using recruitment guidelines to ensure a range of ages, varying levels
of physical activity, ability to speak the language of the group, and cognitive
ability for meaningful participation.
Seventy-one adults (59% women) participated in one of seven focus groups
(Table 1 and Table 2). Mean age was 71.6 years (SD + 7.39). Immigrant
participants had spent an average of 15 years in the United States (SD +
8.59). Fifty-four (76%) participants reported being able to walk 0.5 miles
without help (14). Fifty-seven (80%) participants reported being able to walk up and
down a flight of stairs without help (15). When asked about current exercise
patterns (using the stage of exercise adoption model) (16), half reported
exercising regularly and another third reported exercising some, but not regularly.
Facilitators used the interview guide (Appendix) that was collaboratively
developed by the partnering agency representatives and the research team. For
the non-English–speaking groups, facilitators translated the interview guide and
the note takers checked the translation. During the group sessions, facilitators
explained that for the purposes of discussion, physical activity would include
everything from formal exercise to gardening and household tasks.
Facilitators and note takers attended a one-day training session focusing on learning
about the research study and the role of physical activity for older adults, in
developing skills to facilitate a focus group. Training was held during the day
at a convenient central location. Upon approval from the University of
Washington Institutional Review Board, study personnel from the partnering
agencies invited older adults from their client base to attend the focus group.
Focus groups were audiotaped. Although transportation was not provided, the
focus groups were held in locations frequently used by the participants, such
as meeting rooms of community agencies or senior center meal sites. Notes from note
takers provided backup in case of recording equipment failure. Each focus group
meeting lasted 60 to 90 minutes. Participants were each given a $25 honorarium.
Professional translators transcribed the audiotapes into the language of the
group and then translated the transcript into English. QSR NVivo qualitative
analysis software (QSR International Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Australia) was used to organize the data. Members of the research team
representing several disciplines — including cultural anthropology, nursing,
social work, and public administration — systematically reviewed the translated
transcripts, coding them for emerging themes. The team members had expertise in
aging, exercise, and community-based participatory research.
Initially, all research team members reviewed and coded one of the
transcripts. The team then met to review and discuss their coding. This
discussion across disciplines provided a framework to review and code the
remaining transcripts. Subsequently, each team member chose one of the remaining
transcripts to code, with the coding then reviewed and discussed by all of the
research team members. The research team invited the facilitator and note taker
from each of the groups to participate in the discussion of the transcript
coding. A consensus was reached on coding each transcript.
Major themes emerged after reading and discussing the transcripts, coding
reports, and summaries. A draft report of the results was sent to facilitators,
note takers, and other representatives from the partner agencies. The research
team convened a meeting of community partners to elicit feedback on the draft
results and to enrich the interpretation of findings, including ideas for
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Physical activity as health promotion
A common thread across groups was that exercise is one component of health
promotion along with proper nutrition, caring for ones’ emotional health,
keeping the mind active, and socializing. Walking, both as exercise and as a
mode of transportation, was the physical activity of choice across all groups.
Participants frequently mentioned both health and social benefits as motivating
factors for being physically active, especially as these factors related to managing
chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and pain. When
physically active, participants felt stronger, healthier, and more energetic.
One participant from the Tagalog group said, “Exercising and walking gives you
energy. That’s how you strengthen your body. Your weakness disappears when you
walk a lot.”
Complex role of chronic conditions
Paradoxically, both the key motivator and primary barrier for physical activity
were related to health and chronic conditions. Participants cited examples of
how physical activity helped them to manage chronic conditions. Chronic
conditions, however, also hindered many from being physically active. Some
reported not being physically active when sick or injured. Additionally,
participants were aware that psychological health impacted desire and motivation
to be physically active.
Family as encouragement
Children and other family members helped participants to be physically active by
purchasing exercise equipment to use at home, transporting participants to
programs, or providing encouragement. One African American participant said, “My
son bought me a walk odometer, so I can tell how far I walk.” Participants also
kept active to remain healthy so they would not burden family members. One
Korean participant commented, “My being sick makes my children suffer.”
Environmental factors that hindered participants from being physically active or
required modification of physical activity included weather; neighborhood
safety; fear of crime; program costs; and inadequate availability, frequency,
reliability of affordable transportation. All groups made some reference to
barriers, but some offered solutions.
American Indian/Alaska Native
A history of oppression and the resulting poverty and low self-esteem were
common threads throughout the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) group. Low self-esteem was associated with
lower motivation for self-care, including physical activity. In addition to
walking, the AI/AN participants frequently mentioned providing care to other
seniors as a common activity. The group expressed feelings of being disconnected
and isolated from other AI/ANs; being out of place; not fitting in; and being
uncomfortable around others who are non-Indian: “When you see people using
fitness facilities, you see people who don’t look like me. It would help if
there were a group of elders who look like me.” One participant wanted to serve
as a role model and give his “children and grandchildren someone to emulate.”
Participants in the AI/AN group reported that living with chronic conditions,
such as diabetes, had raised their awareness of the need to be active and lead a
Participants in the AI/AN group were enthusiastic about the idea of getting
together regularly to discuss their health concerns and to encourage each other
to be active. They expressed a strong desire to be around people of similar
background and identity. The cultural and community connection was seen as very
important and as a motivator for participation.
The strongest theme from this group was that of friends encouraging each
other to be regularly active. “It’s nice to have a friend, because if you don’t
feel like going, she might say something to encourage you. Or she might be after
you so much that you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll go.’ And you feel so much better
afterwards. Believe me.” The social aspect of programs was seen as
important: “Try to find yourself someone to do it with. If you can find two
people to get together and one motivates the other.” Participants favored
group activities, although it was important to allow for individuality within
those activities: “But I don’t do all of what they do. I’m my own boss.”
Participants understood the current recommendation of exercising a total of
30 minutes a day in shorter cumulative intervals: “You can walk for 30 minutes a
day or go about five to 10 minutes, and then go back home, and later on do the same
thing. I read this in a book.” Walking had been a common activity when
many participants were younger, and the activity served as a stress reliever, a
time for meditation, and an opportunity to be in nature: “It might sound silly,
but I walk and pray. When you are in nature, you find yourself grateful to be
Several participants spoke enthusiastically about determination: “Main thing, you don’t
get lazy and you don’t give up. You gotta have determination.” In addition, they
mentioned that exercise becomes habit forming and self-sustaining: “Exercise
gets to be a part of you.”
In spite of the perception that damp weather could aggravate physical
conditions, participants were adamant that rain would not prevent them from
getting outside and getting exercise. Humor was expressed: “Girl, that rain
won’t melt you! You are not sugar or salt.”
The importance of a daily activity routine was a prominent theme within this
group. Many spoke of waking in the early morning and having a routine of
stretching, arm swinging, tai chi, walking, or a combination of these. Several
spoke of exercising in short increments several times a day. They viewed
exercise as a critical part of maintaining health for older adults, even more
important than taking medication. Participants viewed physical activity as
helpful for digestion, blood circulation, relaxation, maintaining friendships,
avoiding medication, preventing sickness and chronic pain, living longer and
happier lives, and maintaining overall good health: “The most important reason
for doing exercise every day is for health. It is only with health that you can
In addition, participants spoke of the emotional and social benefits of
exercise: “Exercise makes people happy and stop thinking about anything
meaningless.” Another participant said, “Walk for a few bus stops,
leave my troubles behind.”
This group reflected a certain practicality in their responses. For example,
when the weather was good, they engaged in activities such as yard work. When
the weather was bad, participants spoke of indoor alternatives. Furthermore,
dressing appropriately allowed participants to walk outside in the rain. However, snow
was viewed as more problematic because of the fear of falling and subsequent
injury. Furthermore, social obligations could interfere with an exercise routine when an
unexpected visit by a friend would interrupt an exercise session.
Similar to the Chinese group, Koreans spoke of the importance of a daily
physical activity routine. The health benefits of physical activity served as a
motivation to be active: relieving joint pain, aiding digestion, and feeling
more relaxed and happy: “We must walk after each meal. It helps digestion and
keeps our joints flexible.” Some thought being physically active would make pain
worse, but they found that, in fact, it offered relief. Some felt that exercise
cured their diseases. Participants identified feeling tired and dizzy as reasons
for limiting physical activity. Health care providers told participants they
should not walk because of their age or health condition. Similar to the AI/AN
group, Koreans expressed feelings of isolation from other Koreans, including
feelings of isolation even when surrounded by other Asian American groups. “In
our apartment there are only Chinese women. There is not a single Korean.”
The importance of community, laughter, and socializing emerged from this group:
“All of us are happy because there’s laughter, storytelling, someone wins,
someone loses. When we go home, we sleep soundly because there was laughter, and
we played bingo.” Physical activity is part of a bigger social picture. Exercise
was perceived as important to counteracting the high-fat diet in the United States, which
participants believed has
led to increased high blood pressure among immigrants. Similar to the
Cantonese-speaking group, members of the Filipino group expressed the belief
that exercise aids digestion and blood circulation: “The blood is able to
circulate in the person’s body so the person becomes active on that day.” As
with other groups, a major focus was walking. Participants also mentioned
stretching, tai chi, and household chores: “Before eating, I do tai chi because
it’s slow. That’s ideal for seniors, no sudden movements.”
Many Filipino participants were involved in either paid or volunteer work,
such as serving as senior companions, providing childcare, and doing janitorial
work. In addition to being able to send money back to the Philippines and
helping others, they described how their work kept them physically active and
provided enjoyment. They cited family and work obligations, however, as factors
that interfered with maintaining a physical activity routine.
The Filipino group agreed that physical activity made them strong, healthy,
and energetic. As with the Koreans, the Filipinos were motivated to exercise
because it stimulated their appetites. They also felt younger when they were
physically active: “Dancing makes you feel young and you never give up
As with other groups, the Filipinos identified feeling physically bad or
having an illness as barriers to physical activity. Barriers mentioned also
included vision impairment and fears of tripping or falling. Although other
groups verbalized safety concerns, the Filipinos expressed dramatic fears: rape,
robbery, kidnapping, or being the target of a terrorist. Some felt they did not
live in safe areas or were fearful of getting lost.
Feeling out of place when physical activities predominantly involve younger
people, these older adults reported that socializing with other Filipinos of
similar age was important. They spoke of building a Filipino center, with the
values of unity, equality (no distinction between rich and poor), and
cooperation. This group also spoke of providing peer instruction for others in
the community: “We could share the exercise with those who still don’t know it.
We would go to those who do not leave their apartments.”
Because faith was an integral part of the daily activities of Spanish-speaking older
adults, they brought elements of their faith to many aspects of the discussion
about physical activity. One participant said, “When I wake up, the first thing
that I do is to pray to God. The second, I exercise.” The Latino
participants emphasized music, singing, and dance as ways to remain physically
active. Socializing, avoiding depression, and being outdoors were motivators for
physical activity. “Activity is important because I don’t get depressed...the
problems in life can get you depressed.”
The primary barrier to physical activity was not having a friend with whom to
engage in physical activities. Similar to the Korean group, this group also
mentioned dizzy spells and lack of energy as interfering with being active. This
group and the Filipino group were the only two to identify visual and hearing
impairments as barriers to physical activity.
Vietnamese older adults strongly emphasized a consistent routine of daily
exercise. Similar to the Cantonese and Filipino groups, participants viewed
physical activity and massage as important to blood circulation. Vietnamese
participants spoke of being in good health and active in spite of their age. By
remaining physically active, participants said, they could avoid medication use. One
participant commented, “Whether or not you are old or young, if your muscles are
not stiff, you will have good health. If you are lazy and your muscles are
stiff, you will become weak and you aren’t able to do anything. It is a matter
of daily activity and it must be consistent.” One man said, “Even though
I am 65 years old, I still work as a newspaper deliverer. Every morning, I wake
up very early to get some physical activity. In addition to physical activities,
mental activities are required. I need to remember where to deliver the
newspaper, where to stop. I see this job helps me to earn money and have a
comprehensive physical activity. It is really an opportunity for me.” Physical activity
was cited as helping with longevity: “My doctor said that my blood pressure
would be very high if I don’t exercise. He also said that I will die earlier if
I don’t do exercise. My motivation is being afraid of early death.”
Additionally, personal determination and willpower were named as necessities for
remaining active: “Even though my doctor recommended doing so, I still need to
be determined. But the limitation is your motivation. If you are lazy and
unmotivated, you cannot do it.”
Participants in the Vietnamese group identified geographic isolation as a
barrier to physical activity. Participants lived too far from friends or too far
from a park or other acceptable places to walk. Similar to the Chinese group,
this group had practical responses to weather-related barriers. If it rains,
they expressed that they can use indoor exercise equipment, walk in an indoor shopping mall, or do
housework. Participants perceived cold weather as more problematic than rain
when exercising, citing that it is difficult to breathe in cold weather.
Components of an ideal physical activity program
Ideal programming for physical activity and exercise for older adults from
multicultural groups would be “a paradise for seniors” as stated by one Chinese
participant (Table 3). Budget realities may limit an
organization or program’s ability to provide culture-specific services and
activities for each cultural group served; therefore, organizations and program
developers may want to explore ways to cater to more than one cultural group.
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Results of this study reveal that although there are ethnic-specific
variations in factors influencing physical activity, there are more common
themes than variations. Within an ecological model (17), patterns of health and
well-being and physical activity are affected by a dynamic interaction among
biological (e.g., health, disease, chronological age), psychological
(e.g., enjoyment, self-efficacy, motivation, personal safety, fear of falling),
social (e.g., social support, companionship, family involvement), and
environmental (e.g., weather) factors. In addition, behaviors and habits (e.g.,
exercise history, readiness for activity) play a role in the ecological model. The interaction of these factors unfolds
over the life of the individual, family, and community. Participants talked
about being active as youngsters and continuing to be active as older adults. An
individual’s internal programming for a physically active lifestyle starts at an
early age. Nies et al similarly noted the important role of internal and
external contextual influences on developing and maintaining physical activity
Knowledge of modifiable factors such as motivation and attitudes may help to
develop interventions with the ultimate goal of changing behavior and
influencing outcomes. Similar to our findings, Eyler et al found that
lack of motivation was a common barrier to increasing physical activity (19).
Self-motivation may reflect the presence of self-regulatory skills such as goal
setting, self-monitoring of improvement, and self-reinforcement, all of which
have been found to be critical for maintaining physical activity (20).
It is interesting to note that whereas lack of health contributes to
sedentary lifestyles, lack of health also serves as a motivator to become more
physically active. Changes in health status, therefore, may serve as cues to
adopt a healthier lifestyle. In contrast to other studies that explore barriers
and enhancers to physical activity (in which a determinant must be one or the
other), this study found that certain factors, such as one’s physical health,
could serve as both barriers to and enhancers of physical activity. Similar to
other studies (21,22), our participants universally identified both
physical and mental health benefits of physical activity and exercise.
Our findings that frequent barriers to physical activity for older adults
include personal factors (e.g., health concerns, lack of personal safety, lack of
ethnic-specific exercise facilities) and environmental factors (e.g., inclement
weather, transportation, costs) are similar to findings from other studies
(19,23). The affinity for solving the problems associated with these barriers
was encouraging. For example, although weather might have hindered physical
activity, many older adults executed another plan during inclement weather (e.g.,
instead of walking outdoors, they walked in malls; instead of gardening in their
yards, they danced indoors).
Several factors limit the generalizability. First, the standard wisdom in
focus group research is to conduct at least three focus groups for each group
represented to saturate the data (24), but because of budget limitations, each
cultural group had only one focus group. Although common themes emerged across the
spectrum of cultures, additional studies of each cultural group would provide a
deeper understanding of the motivators and barriers to physical activity in
these communities. Second, because of language and cultural considerations, the
same facilitator was not used for all seven groups. Although training was
provided, the different styles and experience levels of the facilitators may
have elicited different types of information in each group. Simply because a
theme was not discussed by the participants does not mean that it did not hold
significance for that group. Third, the sample was drawn using a convenience
sampling method and from a pool of older adults who were already using services
provided by community agencies. Thus, the participants do not necessarily
represent all older adults in their ethnic groups.
Despite these limitations, this study has important findings. Although there is
interest in helping older adults adopt an active lifestyle, much of the
published research continues to focus primarily on mainstream culture. This
study used focus groups in the participants’ first languages, allowing for an
easier exchange of ideas. Rather than using one ethnic group, this study was
able to compare results across seven ethnic groups. Also, participants in this
study contributed important information about barriers and motivators in
specific recommendations for tailoring physical activity programming to
multicultural audiences. Although generalizations cannot be made over the
broader population, these groups have generated implications for practice that
warrant further exploration. Knowledge of perceptions among older adults about
motivators, barriers, and personally meaningful outcomes to physical activity is
an essential first step to developing programs
tailored to the values of each cultural group.
Future research could address several questions. To what extent does
gender make a difference in being physically active as an older adult? This is
particularly intriguing because men and women play different societal and
cultural roles within most ethnic groups (25). What are the differences in
motivators and barriers between more able-bodied older adults and those who are
physically impaired? What are the differences between sedentary and non-sedentary
older adults? Which aspects of peer-supported programs
are critical for success?
The importance of addressing the lack of physical activity among older adults
in the United States is heightened by the increasing numbers of older adults, the
pervasiveness of sedentary lifestyles in this age group, and the frequent
barriers to activity. Listening to voices from multiple cultures, addressing
barriers, and tailoring activity programs to meet unique needs is a promising
approach to improving the health and well-being of the increasingly large
numbers of underserved, ethnically diverse communities of older adults.
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This project was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
Prevention Research Center Program, with a grant to James LoGerfo, MD, MPH, at
the University of Washington Health Promotion Research Center, Grant Number
U48/CCU009654. The authors thank participants in the focus groups, facilitators
and note takers, and community partners, including the Asian Counseling and
Referral Service, Center for MultiCultural Health, Sea Mar Community Health
Centers, and Seattle Indian Health Board.
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Corresponding author: Basia Belza, PhD, RN, Department of Biobehavioral
Nursing and Health Systems, Box 357266, School of Nursing, University of
Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-7266. Telephone: 206-685-2266. E-mail:
Author affiliations: Julie Walwick, MSW, Sheryl Schwartz, MPA, James LoGerfo,
MD, MPH, Health Promotion Research Center, School of Public Health and Community
Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash; Sharyne Shiu-Thornton, PhD,
Department of Health Services, School of Public Health and Community Medicine,
University of Washington, Seattle, Wash; Mary Taylor, BSN, RN, School of
Nursing, University of Washington, Seattle, Wash.
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