'Age Friendly' environments and physical activity
Health and wellbeing are not only determined by our genes and personal characteristics, but also by the environment into which we are born and live. Our environment can influence taking part in physical activity, and it plays an important role in our behaviours at every age.
Many chronic conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, can be prevented or delayed by healthy behaviours and, importantly, by environments that support healthy choices.
As Dr Orna Donoghue spoke about in the “Is walking the new wonder drug” step, walking is one of the easiest and best ways of improving and maintaining your physical and mental health and wellbeing. However, the design of many community environments can often mean the difference between a healthy and active lifestyle or one constrained by limited mobility and social isolation.
Physical changes that often accompany ageing, such as poorer eyesight and hearing and reduced mobility, can pose risks when you are out and about in your community. In areas where the built environment is adapted, for example, through safe footpaths, older people can be more physically active and socially engaged.
In 2014, Age Friendly Ireland completed a series of walkability audits in various towns around Ireland. These audits used older participants to navigate a designated route and document their perceptions about their physical environment. The research found that many towns had problems that could hinder walking and access, including:
- Footpath surfaces were uneven, too narrow, and in a bad state of repair
- Drivers parking their cars on footpaths, blocking dropped kerbs or parking in accessible parking spaces
- Hedges and shrubbery were not being properly cut back
- Not enough appropriate crossings were provided at busy streets
- Traffic lights did not allow enough time for people to cross the streets
- Obstacles like bins or post boxes blocked the footpaths
These problems can have a major impact on physical activity and social engagement, and by improving and fixing them, towns and cities can be more ‘Age Friendly’. The Age Friendly approach recognises that social, economic and environmental factors are interconnected. In particular, it aims to help older people fully participate in community life, live independently and experience good quality of life.
Some of the most important goals for an Age Friendly community are:
- To make outdoor spaces and buildings pleasant, clean, accessible and safe for older people
- To provide more housing choices
- To provide opportunities for older people to stay socially connected
- To promote safe, accessible, reliable and comfortable transport services
- To combat stereotypes, myths and negative views against older people
- To increase employment, volunteering and civic participation among older people
- To ensure access to timely, practical information about what is happening in the community
- To provide older people with easily accessible health and community services
Thinking about these goals of an Age Friendly society and being physically active:
- How can an Age Friendly environment help improve physical activity?
- What problems in your community environment hinder physical activity?
- How can these be resolved?
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