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Integrating Leisure and Physical Activity

This is an excerpt from Leisure and Aging by Heather Gibson and Jerome Singleton.


Integrating Leisure and Physical Activity

If growing older results in more freedom, then it is reasonable to assume that when one becomes old, life must be replete with greater opportunities for leisure that ultimately affect well-being. Having more discretionary time (i.e., freedom) in later life may provide opportunities for an enriched lifestyle, but too much time can induce a feeling of uselessness and loss of purpose (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). As Carlsen (1996, p. 188) explained, this can be perplexing for many older people, who ponder:

“How am I going to spend my time?”

“What sorts of things can I do with my time?”

“What motivations, what purposes, what focused activities will give me a ‘why’ for my time?”

In spite of such dilemmas, we live in an increasingly age-conscious society that affords more and more possibilities for engaging in diverse forms of leisure. To be of benefit, however, leisure requires a certain creativeness, discipline, and personal investment. Physically oriented leisure can provide the self-knowledge to live a full life, but what circumstances and opportunities cue older people to become engaged in an active lifestyle? Something must trigger older adults to take up more active living and ignore the stereotypes of aging (O’Brien Cousins, 2001). The following examples depict two ways in which physical activity and leisure become integrated to enhance quality of life as well as affirm identity.

Active Living Through Sport

Some older adults are intentionally physically active, and the outcomes many desire have functional relevance to their lives (Jones & Rose, 2005). Some are so focused on maintaining independence, not succumbing to diseases and disability, and preserving or improving their performance capabilities that they devote much of their leisure time to physical activity. Very active older adults indicate that being physically active helps them manage aches and pains, improves their outlook on life, and even “helps keep me from getting old” (Kluge, 2002, p.17). Growth in sport participation in the later years exemplifies this interest in maintaining physical function and independence, something paralleled by an increasing number of organizations promoting masters, seniors, or veterans sporting events. These organizations sponsor sporting events with stated missions such as, “To improve the quality of life for adults aged 50+ by providing athletic competition and social opportunities that promote healthy, active lifestyles.” This was accentuated in the publicity for the 2009 World Masters Games held in Sydney where the expression, “ordinary people can have extraordinary experiences” captured the essence of what this form of leisure offered people from over 100 countries competing in 28 sports.

Consider the example of Christel Donley, who has been athletic all of her life. Unlike many women in her cohort (75+ years of age) who were born in the United States and had little opportunity for sport participation, Christel’s early roots in Germany provided a strong foundation of skills and confidence in the motor domain. Readers may think that, based on her sport background, remaining physically active in the later years is therefore easy, but Christel was unable to find a place to work out for track and field during the winter months because U.S. athletic facilities supported by tax dollars are often unavailable for adults. She found out about an older women’s volleyball team supported by local university faculty and students, and what started out as a utilitarian relationship (accessing indoor workout space) became much more. Before long she became so invested in the group of women she had come to know and the new skills she was learning that she was hooked. Christel’s lifelong interest in sport participation is still growing, now as a member of a volleyball team of women aged 65 and older.

Activity as Personal Growth

Life transitions with their multiple meanings and impact on quality of life call for readjustment in social roles and activities. Life transitions in the later years also provide opportunities for personal growth (Dionigi, 2006; Kluge, 2005). There is, however, a need to be conscious of aging and to move onward and outward rather than inward. This perspective provided a foundation for a workshop called The Women We’re Becoming (Kluge, 2007). The outdoors added an extra dimension to the workshop focus of personal growth through self-understanding, because “the great outdoors works on the soul as well as the muscles” (Rolston, as cited in Edginton, DeGraaf, Dieser, & Edginton, 2006, p. 27). Women who attended the workshop experienced

  • an increased connection with and confidence in their bodies,
  • an enhanced ability to identify and articulate their needs, and
  • an awareness of the need to reprioritize their lives.

Alina Urbanec grew up in an urban environment. As an adult, Alina would occasionally go for short walks in her neighborhood. Having few opportunities to be outside or to appreciate nature, Alina was almost squeamish about being outdoors, but she accepted an invitation to attend The Women We’re Becoming. Experiencing outdoor activities at the workshop opened up a new world for Alina. She discovered a connection with nature she hadn’t experienced before and developed feelings of self-control that arose from better understanding and accepting of herself and her needs. One revelation Alina had was, “Now I get it! Hiking is walking in a pretty place!”


Read more from Leisure and Aging by Heather Gibson and Jerome Singleton.



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