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Maintaining an active life as we get older

Our national partnerships lead for health and inactivity, Andy Coley-Maud, discusses the learning resources developed with our Active Ageing Fund partners and how they might help you adapt sport and physical activity offers to meet people's needs, interests and motivations as they get older.

15th March 2023

by Andy Coley-Maud
National partnerships lead for health and inactivity, Sport England

We are living longer, but not in better health.

Too many older adults are not able to enjoy the benefits of an active life.

This can impact both our health and our quality of life – our strength to lift the grandchildren, our mobility to see friends and our capability to remain independent in our own homes.

Regardless of your age, movement makes people happier and healthier.

What we did and how communities benefitted

Despite the positive benefits, we know that maintaining an active life as we get older can be challenging.

Work, family and caring commitments can understandably take priority and societal narratives often reinforce the notion that as we age, we will and should slow down.

And so, Sport England has worked with 25 Active Ageing partners over the past five years to support more than 30,000 older adults into sport and physical activity; and, to learn how to provide positive, inclusive physical activity experiences that support older adults to build more sport and physical activity into their daily lives.

A graphic showing 95% of participants were aged over 55, 69% were female, 50% were disabled or have a long-term health condition and 5% were from ethnically diverse communities.

Fund outcomes - 12 months after joining a project

  • 9 in 10 participants maintained or increased their physical activity levels, despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • 8 out of 10 reported improved life satisfaction.
  • the benefits extended far beyond increased activity levels, such as:
    • Improved strength, stamina, fitness, mobility and balance
    • Improvements in health conditions and pain
    • Reduced medication use, less reliance on mobility aids and improved ability to carry out daily tasks.

Examples of our partners influencing physical activity policies beyond their projects

Our partners have also sought to create change in their communities to embed and spread these life transforming outcomes. For example:

Age UK

Age UK Milton Keynes have developed a walking befriending toolkit that has given organisations nationwide the knowledge and resources to incorporate walking into their home visit services.

Hertfordshire County Council

Following their Active Ageing test of concept, Hertfordshire County Council social care and public health teams, in partnership with Herts Independent Living Service, have continued to design in physical activity to their health services to enable vulnerable people to stay independent and reduce demand for social care support.

Greater Sport and Active Dorset

Both organisations are strengthening consensus across their local health system around the importance & enjoyment of being physically active as we get older - so that this becomes part of all conversations we have with health professionals.

What we've learned about maintaining and developing an active life as we get older

Our participants embraced all manner of activities from dance and gymnastics to coastal rowing - challenging stereotypes about what older adults would be interested in and that getting older means slowing down.

The importance of co-production across the project lifecycle

The example of 10 Today and its wonderfully charismatic presenter, Terry, shows the power of this approach. They created a strong sense of community and belonging through constant insight gathering and product testing with their audience to adapt the offer to respond to their evolving motivations, needs and physical capabilities of their audience.

Terry demonstrated seated and standing adaptations of the activities depending on how you might be feeling today, and the 10 minute broadcasts were filmed as if in Terry’s home to help the activity feel more achievable within daily life.

The BBC 5Live icon for 10 today, featuring the words 'physical activity for older adults' as well as cartoon people doing exercise

10 Today - accessible, achievable and fun physical activity routines for older adults

Developed by Demos and co-produced with and for older adults, 10 Today is a set of fun 10-minute audio and video workouts to help get older people stretching and moving at home.

When the country went into lockdown, Sport England and Demos partnered with the BBC to make the content universally available on BBC Sounds and the BBC website, and it was also broadcast daily on BBC Radio 5 Live Extra and community radio stations.

10 Today increased activity levels, reduced social isolation, boosted mental wellbeing and provided participants with improved strength and balance to help with everyday tasks.

The project evaluation identified six things that made the content so successful: it was achievable, accessible, adaptable, simple, relatable and fun. You can read the impact report on the project here.

The co-production thread continues into our evaluation and learning activities.

Our partners co-produced more appropriate evaluation frameworks, data collection tools and accessible measures with their participants.

This helped more people to value and take part in the evaluation, so it could better reflect the full impact of the projects and be used to enhance participants' experiences.

You can see the learnings of this approach informing our evaluation and learning for Uniting the Movement.

The power of fun and age positive offers

This 'Dance On' video – from a community-based dance programme in Leeds, Bradford and Doncaster - showcases another example of how the right opportunity and support can reframe physical activity as a fun and achievable experience, irrespective of your age.

Their messaging, imagery, music and language are all person-centered with their promotional materials showing what the experience is like to reassure and alleviate any concerns.

And whilst health is a key outcome, their video highlight the fun elements – “I like all the jiggling about!” – and the positive impact on mood, friendships, and the ability to do every-day tasks. These tangible, short-term, benefits are more relevant and attainable for participants.

What next?

Throughout the Active Ageing programme, we brought our partners together to have regular conversations to share insights, challenges and solutions with each other.

We would love the benefits and gems of these conversations to go beyond these partners.

The Insight Guide below aims to do just this - to summarise these conversations and provide inspiration, ideas and actions that community organisations can draw on to help the people they work with become more active.

We've produced two versions for you - a shorter, summary document and the full report if you really want to get your teeth into what we found.

There’s also a podcast sharing the conversation between two of the Tackling Inactivity partners, where you can hear more about systems approaches, how to secure local stakeholder buy in and how to measure the value/effectiveness of your work and deliver a legacy.


  • Infographics

    And last, but by no means least, we wanted to share those conversations that helped form the insight guide in a visual way.

    So, we have developed a series of infographics that were captured live during the learning conversations covering collaboration, volunteers, getting the experience right, evaluation and sustaining a legacy.

    Evaluation and project co-design

    An infographic about evaluation and co-design tools and approaches. There are connected illustrations around the infographic depicting examples of simple evaluation methods and tools used by project deliverers to meet participant needs, to further develop and grow. There are: •	Session feedback informed future session design – including leaders keeping diaries of participants’ likes and dislikes. •	Participants shared movements suitable for them. •	Unrushed social time helped bring the community together. •

    Trusted local venues

    An infographic about the benefit of working with trusted local venues, such as the Girls Project working with Birmingham Leisure Centre, who offered their venue for free. There are connected illustrations depicting the benefits of working with trusted local venues. These are: •	Saving money, which leads to consistency of the project, which leads to the development of strong partnerships and shared values with the venue. •	It can help embed sustainability via a trusted home, which can lead to holistic planni

    Volunteer-led and run programmes

    An infographic about volunteer-led and run programmes for a Manchester-based project. There are connected illustrations around the infographic depicting the benefits of a volunteer led approach. These are: •	Manchester Council recognising the benefits of the programme and offering a venue for free. •	That a news bulletin helps to keep volunteers informed. •	That this type of programme encourages agency and ownership for volunteers, and that transitioning participants to volunteers can help enrich the experi

    Working collaboratively with local partners

    An infographic about working collaboratively with local partners to achieve shared outcomes. There are connected illustrations around the infographic depicting examples of how forming partnerships with other organisations and getting them around the table helped to achieve common goals. These are: •	Round table discussions. •	Joint funding applications. •	Coaches trained to offer new activities. •	Keeping an open mind. •	Ensuring adequate resources for a project admin’s needs. •	Providing a range of days/ti

    Getting the participation experience right

    An infographic illustrating the three key strands to developing the right experience for participants. These are: •	Designing the offer by collaborative means – i.e. taking the participants’ wants, needs, goals, likes, dislikes, environment, location and timings into account. •	Engaging with your audience – developing a feedback loop that allows for reassurance, incremental improvements and inclusivity to grow. •	The role of the workforce – how you recruit, develop and support your workforce is key to a suc

    Sustaining a legacy from your work

    An infographic showing how to create a sustainable legacy form your work. The points highlighted are: •	Changing attitudes to physical activity •	Working with local partners from the start •	Using evidence to make decisions •	Measure success •	Increasing visibility for sport and physical activity •	Sustaining the offer by using advocates an allies as the ‘glue’ that holds things together, understanding that one size does not fit all •	Sustaining the impact by supporting people

    Read less

I would like to thank all our Active Ageing partners and the evaluation team at CFE research partners who have contributed to these learning resources and to a collective aspiration that collectively we can deliver more relevant, attainable and enjoyable physical activity and health offers for people as they get older.

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