With Age, Focus on Body Shifts From Appearance to Function

FRIDAY Aug. 5, 2011 -- For older Americans who decide to get more physically active, a new study finds that performance often trumps appearance.

The boost in body functioning that older adults gained from about six months of exercise proved more satisfying than any change in appearance, especially among men, according to the research. This suggest that with advancing years, a shift in emphasis may occur, one that puts a premium on a well-functioning body over a "hot" body, experts said.

"If we can get older adults to become more physically active, there are other benefits related to quality of life," said study author Renee Umstattd, assistant professor of health education at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. While many adults think of exercise as helping to prevent or delay chronic disease, Umstattd said her study shows there is much more to it than that.

Her study, published online in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, looked at more than 1,800 men and women, average age 69, enrolled in the Active for Life program at 12 sites across the United States. None of them had exercised regularly before the study, and they participated in motivational sessions by phone or in classes throughout the trial.

Participants were asked to do 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise most days of the week through any activity of their choice, including walking, for the duration of the program, which lasted either five or six months.

At the start, most participants reported being "a little dissatisfied" with their body's appearance, but at the program's conclusion participants liked their bodies more -- or at least disliked them less. They reported, on average, an almost "neutral" feeling, meaning they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied with their body appearance, Umstattd said.

And when paticipants asked about how well their bodies functioned (as opposed to appearance), at the outset most were either dissatisfied or neutral. After the program ended, the average response was ''almost a little satisfied'' with body functioning, Umstattd said.

Gender seemed to influence older people's views on their bodies. Men thought that having a body work well was more important than women did, and men also cared less about appearance than did women, the researchers found.

Overall, greater improvements in satisfaction with body function were associated with younger age, better health at the outset of the program, reduced body mass and greater amount of physical activity.

Previous research has linked declines in body function with reduced self-esteem and identity, the researcher said. And this study confirmed that as satisfaction with appearance and function grew, symptoms of depression declined. But the mental-health boost was even greater with perceived gains in bodily function than with changes in appearance, the study found.

Whites were more likely than blacks to report greater satisfaction with body functioning and appearance at the study's conclusion. The reasons for this were unclear but might be because the whites tended to have more room for improvement, the study said.

The overall study findings make sense to Colin Milner, founder of the International Council on Active Aging.

"You may not be as vain as you were before," he said of older exercisers. With age, many people come to appreciate that their body is functioning well. They are likely to say: "It is more important that I am able to get up and walk and play with my grandkids than my overall appearance," he said.

And even if you are still carrying a few extra pounds, he said, you are probably happier ''because you are able to do what you want to do."

More information

For more on active aging, visit the International Council on Active Aging.

Posted: August 2011


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