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Spotlight on Active for Life Campaign (excerpt)

Active Aging Today asked AARP’s Margaret Hawkins and Teresa Keenan to explain how the program was organized and implemented and to share the lessons learned

AFL encouraged residents to take action.
AFL encouraged residents to take action.

1. Active for Life (AFL) was a marketing campaign aimed at getting sedentary older adults to change their physical activity behaviors. How did the project come about?

On April 4 and 5, 2000, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) hosted a "Technical Experts Working Group Meeting on Physical Activity and Mid-life and Older Adults" in Nashville, Tennessee. The 23 participants (representing science and medicine, public health, aging services, communications, academia, government, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) reviewed the current situation related to increasing physical activity among mid-life and older adults, discussed some of the most important gaps and opportunities for program development, and considered elements of effective interventions.

Discussion at this technical experts meeting highlighted the fact that the issue of physical activity and the 50-and-older population is currently under addressed, is complex, is a difficult issue to undertake, and lacks adequate leadership. In addition, it is an issue that is poorly understood and widely unrecognized. Those organizations that have been working in the area of physical activity and the 50-and-older population are often working in isolation. Efforts to address the issue have been diffuse, lacking adequate resources and communications channels.

Participants recommended that a national "blueprint" be developed to help guide and focus the work of the organizations that are involved, or interested in, physical activity among people aged 50 and older, as well as to engage additional groups.

As an outcome of the Nashville meeting, representatives of AARP, American College of Sports Medicine, American Geriatrics Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute on Aging, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation formed a Steering Committee and developed an agenda for a Blueprint Conference, which was held October 30-31, 2000. The conference provided a forum for the participating organizations to discuss and strategize ways to increase physical activity among the age 50-and-older population.

On May 1, 2001, in Washington, DC, a coalition of national organizations released a major national planning document in the area of aging and physical activity. The National Blueprint: Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 50 and Older was developed to serve as a guide for multiple organizations, associations and agencies to inform and support their planning work related to increasing physical activity among America’s aging population. This Blueprint was intended to outline broad strategies that will lead to increasing physical activity among older Americans. The plan was developed with input from more than 60 individuals, representing 46 organizations with expertise in health, medicine, social and behavioral sciences, epidemiology, gerontology/geriatrics, clinical science, public policy, marketing, medical systems, community organization, and environmental issues.

The Active for Life campaign was the outcome of one of the broad strategies proposed in the National Blueprint.

2. What were the goals of AFL?

RWJF and AARP wanted to test a multicomponent initiative, a social marketing campaign, to encourage older adults to engage in moderate physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day on at least 5 days a week. Goals were structured around the measures of success for each of the three components of the Active for Life campaign—marketing communications; partnership and coalition building; and livable communities/environmental change—that had been set by AARP at the beginning of the campaign.


  • Increased awareness and knowledge of physical activity recommendations
  • Increased awareness and knowledge of community choices
  • Change in favorable attitudes regarding the age-appropriateness of physical activity for those 50+
  • Increased levels of physical activity
  • Increased media coverage of Active for Life
  • Increased brand awareness of Active for Life and AARP

Partnership and Coalition Building

  • Increase in number of community options
  • Increased awareness of community options
  • Enhanced partner commitment to sustainability

Livable Communities and Environmental Change

  • Increased public awareness of the relationship between physical activity, the built environment, and health
  • Increased awareness among policy makers of the relationship between physical activity, the built environment, and health
  • Increased activism on the topic
  • Development of favorable environment
  • Development of favorable policies

3. The campaign took place in Richmond, Virginia, and Madison, Wisconsin, from 2001 to 2004. What were the specific components for each city’s campaign? Please describe.

The components of the campaign for each city were the same:


  • Advertising (general awareness and specific programs)
  • “Earned” media
  • Direct mail to AARP members
  • Presentation about Active for Life Handbook

Partnership/Coalition Building:

  • Increase in number of community options
  • Increased awareness of community options
  • Enhanced partner commitment to sustainability

Environmental Change:

  • Train volunteers to assess neighborhoods
  • Provide opportunities to advocate for change
  • Educate elected officials on issues
  • Target specific problem areas for improvement

4. What worked well in the campaign? What didn’t work?

We faced three challenges with our campaign: (1) occasionally conflicting organizational goals, (2) varying levels of commitment within the demonstration sites, and (3) an unclear message framework.

In many ways, this project suffered from an abundance of riches in that there were two fairly large, notable organizations involved in the effort, each bringing their resources to the table to reach success. But, in some instances, especially in terms of the research conducted, each organization had its own interests, which meant that there was sometimes duplicative effort. A clear example of this was the competing surveys done by the Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a different series done by other contractors for AARP. Generally, the results were consistent (as would be expected with nearly identical survey instruments), but the existence of two sets of surveys tended to confuse rather than elucidate.

Another challenge for the campaign was that the cities of Madison and Richmond were chosen to participate rather than having “won” a competition wherein they would have submitted materials attesting to their interest in participating. This selection process is contrary to others that have been used for similar projects. For example, most recently, communities with an interest in receiving federal grant monies through the NACDD Grant for Healthy Communities program were required to apply to receive the funds and to make a rather sizable commitment of time and resources reflective of their interest. No such requirement was in place for the Active for Life campaign. By choosing the two cities, AARP had to persuade potential community partners that this was a worthwhile initiative for the community and worth their involvement.

Finally, the initial effort to get individuals to be more active did not resonate because it was confusing and unclear about the amount of activity that would be sufficient to obtain health benefits. Once the message was changed to focus on walking—with recommendations for the amount necessary for health benefits—many more individuals could understand what was being asked of them and could participate more fully in the program. Community partners welcomed this change and enthusiastically joined the walking campaign.

To read the entire article, go to Active Aging Today. If you’re not a subscriber, subscribe now.

Margaret Hawkins is a manager of health promotion at AARP. Teresa Keenan is a research team leader at AARP.

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An overview of the The National Blueprint: Increasing Physical Activity Among Adults Aged 50 and Older.

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