Research shows that regular exercise and a healthful diet provide many benefits in the prevention of chronic disease, yet 69% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, and half the adults in the U.S. have either diabetes or pre-diabetes. A report of the Surgeon General notes that 25% of U.S. women are not active at all, and women are less active than men. In spite of the American College of Sports Medicine recommendation to engage in strength training exercises at least twice a week, almost half (46%) of U.S. adults do not get sufficient physical activity.
Poor muscle tone and reduced strength complicate the activities of daily living, affecting balance and increasing the risk of falls. Women begin to lose one-quarter to one-third pound of muscle mass each year, by their mid-forties. Regular physical activity and strength training, specifically, can be beneficial in preventing the sarcopenia (muscle wasting) that occurs with age. In addition, half of all Americans over 50 will have weak bones in the next decade, without significant changes in diet and lifestyle. Meeting physical activity guidelines may help them maintain muscle mass, gain bone strength and prevent further bone loss.
Prevention of osteoporosis--porous bones that break easily and heal slowly--is especially important for middle-aged and older women. A third of women over age 40 suffer from this condition. Osteoporosis results in approximately 2 million fractures annually. Half of women and up to a quarter of men will suffer a fracture of the hip, spine, or wrist in their lifetime. Hip fracture can be especially dire, as twenty percent will die as a result of complications. Annually, medical costs for osteoporosis are roughly $19 billion, and are expected to climb to more than $25 billion by 2025.
An epidemic of inactivity and over-nutrition in America contributes to chronic disease that may benefit from increased nutritional awareness and increased physical activity. These include diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, depression, hypertension and obesity. Additionally, exercise improves self-confidence, sleep and vitality. Improved ability for self-care may also allow many elderly Pennsylvanians to maintain independent living status.
The good news is that weight bearing exercise and improved nutrition can contribute to the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. For many Pennsylvania communities, the challenge lies in finding funding and proven programs to provide the education and training opportunities for older women to get the essential exercise and nutrition education they need.
Pennsylvania is on course to bear the burden of an increasingly debilitated populace, ranking fourth in the nation for highest percentage (15.5%) of elderly people. The StrongWomen/Growing Stronger program addresses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy People 2020 objectives to reduce the portion of adults with osteoporosis, promote health and reduce chronic disease risk through the encouragement of healthful diets and achievement or maintenance of healthy body weight. It also supports the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. Education and prevention strategies are needed to reduce the burden of chronic disease on Pennsylvania's older citizens.
The StrongWomen/Growing Stronger Program under The Penn State Extension Family & Consumer Sciences team engages Pennsylvanians in incorporating better nutrition and physical activity into their lives. Leadership is provided by 27 Extension educators and trained community site leaders, who direct 55 volunteers and 64 wage employees in leading classes designed to improve muscular strength, flexibility, and stamina, as well as to increase knowledge of personal nutrition principles, helping individuals achieve better health and fitness. StrongWomen/Growing Stronger class series are held twice weekly for 6 to 12 weeks, at community-centric locations.
The StrongWomenTM program, developed from research done at Tufts University, demonstrates its effectiveness using the Senior Fit Test (SFT) that includes six activities that measure the basic abilities necessary to perform daily tasks safely and independently. Participants take the SFT before and after the program to compare results.
Since 2005, over 800 site leaders have been trained to deliver the program in PA, and StrongWomenTM leaders have conducted sessions reaching more than 15,000 participants. In 2015 alone, 147 multi-week class series were offered in 27 counties, serving 2,952 participants.
Older adults are more motivated to participate in community-based strength-training exercise programs compared to fitness clubs because they are more accessible, affordable and less intimidating due to social and peer support. A Social Support Survey administered this year for participants in StrongWomen showed:
- 97% enjoy the social interactions in the StrongWomen classes
- StrongWomen is an important social group for 76% of respondents, plus 95% are happy with the amount of exercise they get in their class.
The top 4 motivational factors for participants to continue to take part are:
- "To improve my strength, flexibility, and balance"
- "I enjoy the camaraderie of the class"
- "I want to do something for myself."
- "Improve my health (blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose level, bone density, lipid profile)."
Personal comments emphasize that group cohesiveness has a huge impact on program success.
Improving the Health of Participants
Assessing their progress in bone density test scores (for participants who had a repeat scan), 33% saw improved bone density scores and 55.5% remained stable, with only 11.5% reporting a decrease. Maintaining or improving bone density scores is important for overall health in preventing falls, fractures, and osteoporosis.
From first enrollment to the present, 83-90% of participants report they have increased their upper and lower body strength and flexibility either moderately or considerably. The six tests conducted in the pre and post senior fitness assessment show significantly improved scores in the post-test, indicating success in improving strength, endurance and flexibility. Significant numbers of participants report they have adopted healthier diets, including eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods rich in fiber and healthy fats.
- adopted a healthier diet of fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, calcium, and vitamin D
- increased flexibility
- relief of joint pain
- improved balance and weight
Six different tests are conducted in the senior fitness assessment. In all cases, the post assessment scores were significantly higher than the pre-test scores indicating the program is effective in improving body strength and balance. The longer participants are involved in the StrongWomen program, the more likely they were to include other physical activity into their life such as yoga, aerobics, walking, etc.
Volunteers Undergird PA StongWomen Program
In 2014-15, 101 volunteers provided 4848 hours of service to Penn State Extension. At the current value of $23.07/hour, volunteers contributed $111,843 toward the success of StrongWomen/Growing Stronger.
Continued Program Growth
Frequent new leader training provides momentum for continued growth of the StrongWomen/Growing Stronger program. Leader recruitment, as well as semi-annual refresher training led to program growth and leader skill refreshment