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.
Pennsylvania is on course to bear the burden of an increasingly debilitated populace, ranking fifth in the nation for highest percentage (16.7%) of elderly people.
Poor muscle tone and reduced strength complicate the activities of daily living, affecting balance and in‐ creasing 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.
Osteoporosis affects 1 in 4 women and 1 in 17 men ages 65 and older. 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.
The good news is that weight bearing exercise and improved nutrition can contribute to the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.
An epidemic of inactivity and over‐nutrition in America has highlighted other areas of 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 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 and to 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 Food, Families, and Health Unit engages Pennsylvanians in incorporating better nutrition and physical activity into their lives.
Leadership is provided by 22 Extension educators and trained community site leaders, who direct 29 volunteers and 36 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‐centered locations.
The StrongWomen 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 assess change.
Since 2005, over 830 site leaders have been trained to deliver the program in PA, and StrongWomen leaders have conducted sessions reaching more than 14,000 participants. In 2016‐2017, 88 multi‐week class series were offered in 25 counties.
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.
The top 4 motivational factors for participants to continue to take part are:
- “To improve my strength, flexibility, and balance”
- “I want to do something for myself”
- “Improve my health (reduce risk of osteoporosis, blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, bone density and lipid profile)”
- “Motivates me to focus on my health”
Personal comments emphasize that group cohesiveness has a huge impact on program success. As of result of participating in the program, 73% of have begun participation in an additional type of physical activity.
"When I joined, I could not lift a gallon of milk, now I can do my own shopping!"
Improving the Health of Participants
Assessing their progress in bone density test scores (for participants who had a repeat scan), 34% saw improved bone density scores.
Maintaining or improving bone density scores is important for overall health in preventing falls, fractures, and osteoporosis.
From first enrollment to the present: 90% of participants report they feel physically stronger, 88% increased their flexibility, 83% increased their balance, and 85% increase the amount of weight they can lift. 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 more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods rich in fiber, healthy fats. A majority report using the Nutrition Facts Food Label to make more healthful food choices.
"The classes are great motivation to exercise, even on days when you don't feel like it!!"
In 2016-2017, 29 volunteers provided 1,000 hours of service to Penn State Extension. At the current value of $24.14/hour, volunteers contributed $24,140 toward the success of StrongWomen/Growing Stronger.