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14.04.2023 - Ausgabe: 2/2023

Physical activity in the context of demographic change - sports facilities for older adults

© playfit GmbH

It will hardly have escaped anyone's notice that the age structure of our society has changed considerably in recent decades. Or to put it in a nutshell: the average age is constantly rising. The underlying sociological reasons will not be discussed in detail here, for all that counts are the current hard facts which say, among other things, that the number of people aged 64 and over has risen from 12 million in 1991 to 18.4 million in 2021. Since there is a simultaneous decline in the younger birth cohorts, those aged 65 and over also make up an ever larger share of the total population over time - from 15% in 1991 to 22% in 2021 (Source: Federal Statistical Office). This means that around a quarter of our society is of senior age. In addition, there are about 15% in the 55-64 age group, which adds up to more than 30 million people in Germany alone. This problem also affects almost all other industrialised countries – ageing societies are one of the major challenges of our time. 

Living a long and healthy life is at the top of many people's agendas. In addition to medical progress, it is also up to everyone to do something for themselves. Neben dem medizinischen Fortschritt ist es auch an jedem selbst etwas dafür zu tun. Sports and exercise are key factors to achieve this. This also applies to the older generation – even though the respective physical conditions must of course be taken into account. Today, most sports activities – be it in clubs or in private institutions such as fitness studios – are primarily aimed at "younger people" – most of them being under 40 years of age. Of course, this has not been specified as such directly, but most of us are no longer able to cope with the demands of competitive sport "in our old age"; by its very nature, physical fitness is continuously declining from the age of 30. Of course, many clubs and fitness studios also offer "senior sports" activities, but the general trend for self-determined sports, known as informal sports, is also clearly noticeable among the older generation. 

For precisely these athletes, there must be opportunities to engage in physical activity in public spaces beyond club sports and fitness studios. In addition, those who are not actively looking for sports opportunities but need to be encouraged to exercise should also be addressed. Thus, two demands made by the many people of the older generation on the public space have to be met at the same time: namely, sports facilities for those who love to exercise and low-threshold sports opportunities for those who are not too much into sports. For many decades in the 20th century, neither played much of a role in urban planning and sports infrastructure. By the age of 40 at the latest, adults were considered "sports pensioners", and with the much-quoted motto "no sports", they often abandoned all sporting activities. The only sport that is popular with many people well into their old age is swimming, although this is made difficult for many these days due to swimming pool closures and high entrance fees.

Most medical professionals agree that sport and exercise are key to a long and healthy life. This applies to people of all ages. Any kind of exercise is good in principle, but not every kind of exercise is sport. Even though people over 40 have long been considered "sports pensioners", most of them are not physically inactive: walking and cycling are also physical activities. Therefore, cycling to the supermarket and going for a walk in the afternoon are perfectly acceptable, but the standard of physical activity is higher. 

How high should it be, though? First of all, it is important to provide opportunities. For just as naturally as there are football pitches, playgrounds, skate parks or gymnasiums, there must also be sports facilities for the older generation in public spaces. And it is not enough just to have a boules court, even though such courts are always very well received. 

A much better option when it comes to physical activity are fitness trails, which for a while were referred to as "multigenerational or senior playgrounds". However, these terms are not well chosen, because it is not about busy work for the elderly, but about sport. A well-designed fitness trail offers challenges for all ages – young and old alike. Basically, there are two types of design – on the one hand, a central area providing several sports facilities in one spot and on the other hand – similar to former "keep-fit trails" – different sport facilities along a path. In the latter case, the exercise stations are usually very low-threshold and designed in such a way that they can actually be used "in passing". This is particularly useful along busy hiking trails, but also along paths that are frequently used by walkers.  In this way, sporting activities can easily be taken to a higher level, because variety is key to any workout. A central fitness trail must first of all cater for different levels of fitness. Both beginners and seasoned athletes need to be challenged. For the former group, it is crucial that there are appropriate instructions on how to use the individual exercise equipment. Preferably on large signs with illustrations and large letters. A QR code might be useful, but it is not an option for many older citizens. Simple fitness equipment for "beginners" should perhaps also be placed somewhat on the periphery so that the users do not feel observed. This is often just a pretext for not using the facilities. 

As already mentioned, fitness trails should be open to all generations. However, the needs of the elderly in particular should be given special consideration in planning and maintenance. Many of the sports opportunities provided should be low-threshold and barrier-free. It is important that the facilities are easily accessible and well-lit, but also sufficiently shaded in summer. Benches or other seating are very important, not only for resting in between, but also for any accompanying persons. The equipment should be cleaned and maintained on a regular basis. Big issues with such facilities are always sanitation and access to drinking water. Nearby bistros or cafés, for example in parks, might be a solution, or a connection to a clubhouse. Creative solutions are called for, because a lack of toilets prevents many senior citizens in particular from using such facilities. 

Many fitness trails have been built in recent years, and we often hear from operating municipalities that people do not use them as much as would be expected. It must be pointed out that it is not enough to simply build these trails and wait for users. This works for children's playgrounds, because the age group in question is familiar with this approach. However, sports facilities that also appeal to the elderly are still something new, even though they have been around for some time now. It is important to overcome reservations and personal inhibitions, and to do this one should bring partners onboard. In sports groups, clubs or residential facilities for senior citizens, planned activities can take place specifically on such facilities. Special events on site can also break down barriers and familiarise physically active people with the sporting opportunities. It is important to actively encourage people to exercise. The more this approach is used, the more people are addressed – regardless of whether they are sports enthusiasts or couch potatoes.

Sports facilities for the older generation will continue to be an issue in the future, with the range of activities on offer sure to become even more varied.  A well-designed, varied fitness trail offering a wide range of activities is a good solution. The whole of society needs to become more physically active, and the challenge is certainly huge for the older generation. This must be taken into account in urban planning. And if the average age continues to rise in the future, that might just as well mean that all these efforts have been crowned with success.



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