A study is looking at the physical, social and mental health benefits of creating outdoor “playgrounds” for seniors.
“There has been a lot of focus in recent research on making age friendly communities,” says Associate Professor Pazit Levinger, a senior research fellow with the National Ageing Research Institute who is leading the project, which will take place at three sites around Melbourne.
“If you go outdoors you can see that there’s lots of playgrounds for kids, but very little suitable equipment where older people can go and exercise and become active,” she told Community Care Review.
“The whole idea is to allow older people to have an active outdoor space for them to be physically active and socialise.”
A playground for seniors
Participants will engage in both structured and independent activity at “playgrounds” – or senior exercise parks – in suburban Hopper’s Crossing, St Helena and Thomastown.
Levinger says the playground can be used by young and old alike, and the senior exercise parks resemble preschooler’s playgrounds – but minus the swings and slippery dips.
Instead, they feature things like moveable balancing platforms and equipment that mimics movements required for daily functions, like reaching up to get something from a cupboard or sitting and standing up from a toilet.
“The equipment can be used by everyone, but what’s nice about it is that it’s specifically designed for older people, to specifically target those physical aspects that deteriorate over time,” Levinger says.
“It’s heavily focused on coordination, balance, strength, joint motion, movement, mobility. The equipment offers specific exercises that are really relevant for older people in terms of their functionality.”
Extra benefits of being outside
A study published in 2017 showed that people who exercised at a senior’s playground twice a week for 18 weeks improved muscle strength, balance, and physical function. ‘
Those results led the research team expand the program for further research, which they hope will provide data in support of the case for more senior exercise parks.
The current study will involve 120 participants over a 12-month period. During that time researchers will collect date on healthcare, physical gains, mental health and socialisation.
There will be three months of structured, supervised sessions and after that participants will have the option of exercising independently if they choose.
Having the exercise parks outdoors confers an extra benefit, because being outside is associated with benefits in terms of mental health and brain function, Levinger says.
The social aspect is also emphasised and exercise sessions are followed by morning tea where participants can interact and make new friends.
“We aim to see at the end of the trial a reduction in healthcare utilisation, and we hope that we get some more information for government in terms of further investment in that area,” Levinger says.
She says outdoor adult exercise centres are quite common in Europe and China but Australia has been a bit slow on the uptake.
“I think it’s catching up, but it might take a bit of time and a bit more community and government involvement to make sure we have spaces that are suitable for older people, and then it will become a cultural thing where we just go outside and exercise.”
The study is being conducted in partnership with Gandel Philanthropy, Wyndham City Council, Whittlesea City Council and Old Colonists’ Association of Victoria.