Health Across the Lifespan

June, 2009

by Jennifer Philion


In 2004, when Plymouth State University’s health, physical education, and recreation department became the Department of Health and Human Performance (HHP), it was more than a name change—it was a reflection of the widening scope of work faculty members and students were doing in the areas of athletic training, health education, physical education, and adventure education.Still, some misconceptions linger. “People might think our programs are based in physical skill,” says Professor of Health and Physical Education Barbara McCahan. “Instead, we offer holistic, professional preparatory programs.” As an example, McCahan cites the adventure education major, where students learn about education theory, safety, leadership, empowerment, and decision-making as they hone their outdoor adventure skills.Professor of Physical Education Deborah John expands on the department’s philosophy. “We examine a basic question: How does the performance of human beings relate to their health? We encourage a lifestyle, across the lifespan, focused on healthy behaviors including structured exercise and recreational activity.”To encourage this kind of lifestyle among different groups of people—regardless of age, health, income level, gender, ethnicity, or other demographics—HHP faculty and students need to understand what makes people tick when it comes to their health behaviors and activity levels. To gain this knowledge, they’re going straight to the source—the general public—with research projects that focus on a wide range of people and activities in PSU’s surrounding communities.Learning from Lifelong AthletesAccording to the National Ski Areas Association, the average age of skiers is rising nationally: In 2006–07, that age was 36.6 years. But on most weekdays at New Hampshire’s Waterville Valley Resort, those 30-something skiers will likely find themselves sharing the slopes with—and getting passed by—skiers up to twice their age.Waterville Valley, only 11 miles from Plymouth, is home to one of the longest running senior ski programs in the country. The Silver Streaks, alpine and Nordic skiers age 50 and older, offer HHP faculty and students a unique opportunity to try to answer an important question: How do older adults come to be active older adults?John and McCahan have collaborated on a qualitative research study, interviewing a number of the Silver Streaks skiers last winter about their individual characteristics and perceptions associated with active aging. In a conversation with a reporter from the Boston Globe, John said the research “helps us understand how staying physically active is an important component of healthy aging.”“There is a focus on this age group because the number of people in it is increasing,” says McCahan, citing the aging Baby Boom generation and longer lifespans, thanks to medical advances. “Physical activity across the lifespan has significant benefits that become apparent in later life, including higher physical functioning, independence, and better health profiles.”The pair did a preliminary presentation on their research in February at the Eastern District Association of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance’s annual meeting in Pennsylvania, and the full paper has been submitted for presentation at the Association of Applied Sports Psychology conference in Utah in September.

John believes the fact that HHP faculty and students conduct this type of applied research is, in itself, extremely important to the communities PSU serves. “These older adults were so willing to tell us their stories and were excited about participating in the project. It gave them an opportunity to share what they find important about active lifestyles for themselves and for others,” she says. “That’s really an important component of the research; it’s not just what we learn, but the fact that what we learn is informed by the voice of the people—the people who see themselves as active, aging successfully, and doing it here in our communities.”

The experience is also extremely valuable to the students involved in the research. Farran Tileston, a senior physical education major with a concentration in applied health fitness and a minor in gerontology, assisted with the Silver Streaks project. “I wouldn’t have known I enjoyed research if [John] hadn’t encouraged me to participate,” she says. “It’s so much more hands-on than typical classroom work.”

Putting Activity on the Map

In early March, Tileston was back to work on another HHP research project—this time, armed with a digital camera and global positioning system (GPS) navigation device. Although it was a gray, wintry day, she was meeting Plymouth resident (and former PSU employee) Nick Mathis to check out some of his favorite snowshoeing spots around town, take pictures, and mark the locations on the GPS.

This community-based participatory research project is an undertaking of a series of special-topics graduate courses created by John, and part of a Partners Enabling Active Rural Living (PEARL) project with the towns of Plymouth, Rumney, and Warren. “The goal is to create a model of active rural living, so we can design programs that will better serve the active living needs of rural populations,” John says.

Researchers have invited Plymouth residents to document environmental features that either enable or act as barriers to active living in their town. Using a new technology developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called participatory photo mapping (PPM), John and the students will be able to create an “active living” map of the community, complete with captions provided by the town residents.

The comments are collected one-on-one with residents who then come together in a focused conversation, facilitated by the research team, to share their perceptions of the town attributes that they documented with their photographs. “

The end result should be similar to a Google map, with photos you can click on to see that exact spot,” says Farran, who has found the community-based approach to research exciting. “We’re not just working with individuals,” she says. “This type of project has made me more interested in community fitness and activity programming.”

John also finds this project rewarding. “The PEARL project is really the kind of work I focus on,” she says. “This research has the people telling us their perceptions of all the benefits of living in their communities, and some of the challenges. They identify the areas of greatest need and say, ‘This is what we want in our community.’ Then we can help them access resources so they can get what they want.”

The researchers will continue this project with the nearby towns of Rumney and Warren. In each community, the information provided by residents will help form a community action plan. “With a well-documented action plan, it’s easier for communities to access the resources available to help them remove barriers to active living,” says John.

Seeing the Big Picture

Because of HHP’s emphasis on encouraging active lifestyles, much of the research performed by faculty members and students focuses on active people, such as the Silver Streaks and the local residents who volunteered to document local active living environments. But they realize this is only part of a wide range of populations in the communities that surround PSU, and other research projects seek to broaden their scope of knowledge.

In an upcoming study, researchers will look at factors associated with the risks of falling in older adults, traditionally the least active age group. “Many older adults become completely sedentary over the winter months because of the risks associated with getting around,” John says. McCahan and athletic training professor Marjorie King will work with students using new technologies, typically used in athletic training research, to assess older adults.

“We’re going to measure a variety of physical and psychological factors, including their self-perceptions, then look at the relationships across those factors in older adults who are fallers and non-fallers,” John says. “We’re wondering: How do psychological and physical factors translate into a notion of falling risk, and how can we better identify people who are at risk for falling?”

While the age group they’re working with is the same as in the Silver Streaks study, “the two studies are very different,” John says. “On one end of the spectrum, we have the beneficial factors associated with healthy, active aging.”

“On the other end, we have both biophysical and psychological factors related to risks associated with aging,” says McCahan. “If you perceive that you’re at risk for falling, you may tend to not want to do very much.”

Professors McCahan and John say the range of research the HHP faculty members and students do with older adults is creating a “big picture,” full of valuable information about a population that is often underserved and not understood.

“The cool thing is we’re looking at the population like a big mirror. That information will reflect back on ourselves, our students, and our programs—if we’re lucky, we’ll all get to be that age,” McCahan says. “It’s a different paradigm than how the older population has been looked at before. It has been seen as, ‘What can we do to help these people?’ Now we’re also asking, ‘What can we learn from them?’”

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