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Q&A with Marcia Ory

Marcia G. Ory, PhD, MPH, is Regents Professor, Department of Social and Behavioral Health, School of Rural Public Health (SRPH), at The Texas A&M Health Science Center in College Station. She is also director of the SRPH Health Promotion and Aging Program. In addition, Ory is the director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored Active for Life National Program Office, where she has demonstrated that evidence-based health promotion programs can be successfully translated to both clinical and community settings.

Why did you choose a career in aging and physical activity?

For the past 30 years I have been engaged in social and behavioral aspects of aging research, where a major concern is the identification of factors associated with successful aging. My personal goal was to be able to design and test intervention strategies for the promotion of factors that would increase health and well-being throughout the life course. As clear to professionals in the physical activity field, increased physical activity is one of the best things an individual can do to increase their likelihood of avoiding or postponing age-related diseases, disabilities, and conditions. Combining the two areas of study seemed like a natural thing to do both professionally and personally.

Would you please describe your role as director of the SRPH Healthy Aging Program?

As Director, I provide leadership to multidisciplinary colleagues who are interested in research and practice issues surrounding the promotion of health across the life course. With increased longevity and population aging, new concerns are raised about the quality of Americans’ longer lives. To address these concerns, the Program on Healthy Aging provides a coordinated focus for research and practice on strategies for understanding and promoting successful aging. Specifically, the program coalesces a number of distinct but related aging and health promotion oriented research programs including the RWJF Active for Life Program, The Texas Healthy Lifestyles Project, and the Texas Falls Prevention Coalition. The primary focus of this overarching program is on social, behavioral, and environmental factors across the full spectrum of the older population. Basic and applied research activities center on identification of social, behavioral, and environmental determinants for health and illness in older populations; understanding of factors associated with optimal self-management and living independently with chronic illnesses and disabilities in later life; and design and evaluation of multi-level interventions to promote health, prevent disease, and postpone disability in older adults.

You serve as director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-sponsored Active for Life National Program Office. Would you please describe that role?

Active for Life was initially funded in 2001 to address multiple strategies for increasing physical activity in persons 50 years and older. The National Program Office oversaw a national grant program coordinating efforts of nine grantees across the nation to test the effectiveness of two different behaviorally based evidence-based programs for increasing physical activity in later life (e.g., Active Choices and Active Living Every Day). Additionally, the National Program Office established a Learning Network to foster stronger ties between smart growth and active aging perspectives to healthier living, and also promoted intergenerational strategies for combating childhood obesity. As Director, one of biggest joys was getting to be part of the National Blueprint and work collaboratively with other colleagues and organizations also pursuing an active aging mission.

Through Active for Life, you have demonstrated that evidence-based health promotion programs can be successfully translated to both clinical and community settings. Could you describe one or two of those programs and why they are successful?

Active Choices (telephone based) and Active Living Every Day (small-group based) are excellent examples of evidence-based programs that draw on similar state-of–the art behavior change principles. These programs help participants set goals for being more active, identify barriers, and collaboratively problem solve workable solutions tailored to an individual’s own personal and social context. The challenge was in getting community organizations to work with multiple partners to build the capacity to deliver these programs with fidelity and to sustain efforts over time, especially in tight economic times. Centralized training was helpful for promoting intervention fidelity and the “train the trainer” approaches helped the program to grow more broadly. The successes and challenges in implementing Active for Life programs can be found in the final report (see

What other projects are you working on?

I am currently working with the CDC-funded Healthy Aging Research Network to help foster research on factors associated with healthy aging. One of our major activities is to advise the Administration on Aging on the conduct of a national evaluation of evidence-based programs for older adults focusing on strategies for reaching diverse populations, engaging varied community organizations, methods for evaluating fidelity and assessing outcomes, and sustaining programmatic activities. As a part of this effort, I am also helping to direct the Texas statewide efforts in implementing evidence-based programs for increasing physical activity, preventing falls, and managing chronic illnesses. Additionally, I am now engaged in a study of statewide policies for combating childhood obesity through safer routes to school and a modification of governmental food packages for children. Furthermore, our research team is now working in clinical settings to engage physicians in more dialogue about the importance of physical activity and the role of environmental factors.

What is the best part about your job?

I have the ideal job. I get the stimulation of an academic environment—but also the benefit of working with community agencies who work directly with older adults. This enables me to bridge what is often a research-to-practice gap.

What has been the most rewarding experience of your career, and why?

I love learning about new strategies for translating research into practice that can make a difference not only for older people—but for their families and the broader community too. Research that is not translated is a lost opportunity—research translation holds much promise for improving the nation’s health and welfare while simultaneously stimulating further research advances.

Based on your experience, what is the most significant advancement in your field? Why?

I think the most significant advance is changing negative stereotypes about what older people can and want to do in relationship to physical activity and exercise. In particular, being physically active is now seen as positive and safe for almost everyone, regardless of age or functional status. The key has been to learn how to tailor activities that are appropriate for different people and situations. To continue the previous stereotype of physical activity being dangerous would prevent many older adults from enjoying the many health benefits of physical activity.

Learn more about members of the Active Aging Community Center Steering Committee.

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