At first sight, it is unclear how playing the card game bridge can encourage older adults to step into more physical activity. Yet that is what is happening through the “Thinking and Doing” project in the Netherlands. To learn more about this program, I interviewed Gijs van der Scheer, director of the Dutch Bridge Federation, who is an enthusiastic promoter of playing bridge as a way to improve social cohesion and activity in neighborhoods.
Van der Scheer, who has been with the Bridge Federation for 10 years, says the project started because the group wanted to recruit more members.
“We noticed that the average age of the players was 67 years, and that the senior group was the easiest to persuade to join the clubs,” he says. “Instead of regarding this as a weakness, we decided to see this as a strength; there was something to offer to seniors that was appreciated by its own nature.”
A few years ago, the ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport launched a stimulation funding program called the National Action Plan on Sport and Physical Activity. “This gave us the possibility to formulate a project using playing bridge as a way to reach inactive people,” says van der Scheer. “We thought this may work, based on experience that people who play together also undertake other social activities such as biking and walking.
One of the requirements for getting the funding for the “Thinking and Doing” project (offered in 20 municipalities) was a three-month evaluation of the effectiveness in reaching inactive people and improving their physical activity levels. Van der Scheer says the Bridge Federation was nervous about reaching set goals in such a short period of time, but the group did reach inactive seniors, who went on to do more activities together, such as biking.
The Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (www.NIVEL.nl) conducted a formal evaluation of the project. The first measure showed promising results: 27% of participants intended to stay more active in the future. The results of a bigger and controlled study are expected at the end of 2010, says van der Scheer.
Marketing and Reach of the Project
To attract people aged 55 and older to the bridge program, participating municipalities mails letters and leaflets. This marketing usually results in all 50 local meeting places becoming fully occupied. Sometimes, even waiting lists have to be formed.
Playing bridge once a week for 2.5 hours is used to form new informal social networks and stimulate people to start activities together. No special messages about health or physical activity are given, although, says van der Scheer, “Sometimes, the local alderman is overenthusiastic and explains while opening the local project what the real goals are: stimulating physical activity and social interactions. This should be avoided, as it is known that exercise stimulation is not the message that inactive older adults want to hear. The bridge play leaders have been trained to introduce the idea to the club members.”
The initiative started in January 2009 and reached 3,100 seniors. The mean age was 67.5 years, and 37% was considered physically inactive (not meeting the recommendations of 30 minutes of physical activity per day on 5 days per week minimally) at the start. The inactivity has been decreased to 29%. Today, 2,600 people (83%) still participate, and 56% (as compared to 45% at the start) meet the physical activity recommendations.
Photo courtesy of Dutch Bridge Federation