The over-50s are overlooked in sports science, yet a more mature approach would aid students, finds Jennifer Currie.
Exercise may be the key to a longer life, but only a tiny proportion of this country's over-50s are active enough to notice the benefits that a healthier lifestyle can bring. A third of over-70s cannot walk a quarter of a mile unaided.
It could be that we are simply a nation of couch potatoes, but Adrian Taylor, professor of health and physical activity at De Montfort University, thinks that many university sports science departments are to blame.
Professor Taylor ran an audit on behalf of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science and funded by the Health Education Authority of how much of the sports science curriculum relates to older people. It found that just 10-15 per cent of final-year undergraduate projects involve over-50s and that little research funding is pumped into the topic.
It seems that instead of advocating sport as a way to extend or improve the quality of your life, sport scientists are focusing on maximising the performance of elite athletes.
"The present curriculum does not direct enough students into learning about the processes of ageing when it has been proven that exercise can bring huge health and safety advantages to the elderly. Perhaps it is because old people are thought of as past it, or that sport is just for young people, when the reality is that people can and should be active at any age," Professor Taylor says.
"Because we are all living longer, the number of older people in this country will increase, so it makes sense to think about promoting the benefits of lifelong activity," he adds. "More than 10,000 students graduate each year in the field of sport, exercise and leisure and they have the potential to make an impact in society."
Figures from the HEA show that there will be as many people aged over 50 as under 50 by 2010, while the number of people reaching 65 and over is set to rise by 2 million come 2010.
The costs of caring for this ageing, and largely sedentary, population have not escaped the attention of the authorities.
More than Pounds 9.6 billion was spent on hospital care for old people in England between 1995-96, so it is no surprise that initiatives such as the HEA's Fit for Life campaign, have been launched to promote an active lifestyle as the best way to stave off the downside of old age.
"This government is keen to address social exclusion and inter-generational fragmentation though initiatives like Our Healthier Nation. Yet, with about 88 institutions and more than 30,000 sport and exercise graduates every year, people are still more interested in sports policy and elite athletes," Professor Taylor says.
While some may view the prospect of working with older people as too much of a risk, Professor Taylor thinks that they present sports scientists with the perfect opportunity for innovative research. "Working with old people allows you to see the differences between sport and exercise science."
Those at Stirling University seem to agree, as it now provides a weekly activity programme and has opened up its sports facilities to a group of senior citizens, aptly titled the Supers - which stands for Stirling University Physical Exercise and Recreation for Seniors. From September, a new module will be offered to third-year students, who will look at the ageing process and exercise and sport for the elderly.
Alan Nichols, director of Stirling University's sports centre, says that the community programme has fed easily into departmental research and curriculum, as well improving town-gown relationships.
"The Supers group provides us with information for degree study, such as questionnaires, data from health monitoring programmes and focus group sessions. The growth of the Supers programme has given rise to wider academic opportunities," Mr Nichols says.
"Many institutions run their own exercise programmes for older people but they often lack a serious academic vein and the information is not transposed to research," he adds. "I don't think that people are avoiding this area, as it is both relevant and very researchable."
Changing attitudes towards exercise are visible wherever you look, he says. "It is quite acceptable now for granny to go to the gym. Our gym is used by the Supers during off-peak hours and the students are perfectly used to this, so the study of ageing and exercise is nothing unusual. But because the area of study is relatively new, guidelines need to be developed and practitioners need to be trained. In order to do all of this we need more research, so we have to hope that students will be interested enough to stay on and work on this area."
Les Burwitz, head of exercise and sport science at Manchester Metropolitan University, agrees that higher education can and should encourage more people to remain active for longer.
"People will start to get tuned in once they can see that research in this area is turning into careers," he says. "As it is one of the hottest topics around I don't think that time will be far off."
MAKING THE ROAD TO HEALTH HAZARD-FREE FOR SENIORS
Adult exercise programmes can be easily adapted to suit older participants without creating a health risk, according to Alan Nichols and Stuart Galloway of Stirling University's sports centre.
When designing classes, factors to be considered are slower response times and weaker skeletal structures, as well as the individual's health and level of ability. Aerobic conditioning and resistance training can also be adapted.
If the elderly and frail cannot be encouraged to get out of their armchairs, they should be introduced to seated exercises.
Classes offered at Stirling range from exercising to music, parallel aquatics and line dancing. A games programme has also been introduced to attract male participants. Stirling's Supers group now has more than 300 members. "They are a great group of people, as well as a superb vehicle for study," says Mr Nichols. "They have a lot more life than most of us."