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University of Basel

Bridging the generation gap through exercise.

Text: Céline Eugster

Children and older people alike often get less exercise than they need. Sports researchers in Basel are tackling this problem with projects aimed at getting the two groups moving – together.

A child and her grandfather try to balance on a wobbly beam, while a pedal-powered fountain gurgles nearby. In Basel‘s Schützenmattpark, a dazzling array of exercise equipment is buzzing with users young and old in constant motion. The devices, specially designed to train strength and balance in a playful fashion, are a gift to the city of Basel from the Hopp-la Foundation – an intergenerational program promoting exercise and health that has its roots in a master’s project at the University of Basel’s Department of Sport, Exercise and Health (DSBG).

The idea behind the project is simple but efficient: galvanizing older people to move around more by exercising with their energetic grandchildren in the open air. Since its inception, the pilot project in Basel has expanded to include other areas of Switzerland. This reflects a key concern of the University of Basel researchers behind the project: ensuring their findings are implemented in practical applications, as Lukas Zahner, Professor of Exercise and Training
Science, explains.

Increased happiness

Research has shown that an individual’s muscle strength and sense of balance rise and fall over the course of their lifetime. Accordingly, in children these capabilities have not yet been fully developed, while in older people they are in decline. This is where the research projects in Basel come in. The practical side of things is dealt with by the Hopp-la Foundation. In concrete terms, this means safe walking and fall prevention. Among older people, quality of life, health satisfaction and autonomy, along with their fear of falling, are to a large extent determined by physical activity. Exercising with others and developing balance and strength in a spirit of mutual encouragement is not just logical, but also a great deal of fun. The pleasure children take in movement is passed on to older people, with physical, psychological and social benefi ts for both generations.

Documenting the advantages of exercising together in this way is the goal of a dissertation project currently in progress at the DSBG, devoted to demonstrating the added benefi ts of intergenerational training as compared to age-specific training. For example, besides building strength and balance, doing sports with children or grandchildren is thought to boost older people’s practical and social autonomy and health satisfaction, Zahner says. This means that emotional and social factors are just as important when it comes to fi tness in old age.

Extending independence

More exercise brings a raft of benefi ts for older people, both physical and psychological. “Exercise and sport do more than help prevent falls,” says Zahner. For instance, an active lifestyle can be just as eff ective as medication in combating type 2 diabetes or mild depression. “Our intergenerational approach is probably the most economical, quite aside from all the positive side eff ects,” he adds.

What is more, Zahner believes that exercise can also translate into cost savings if it helps people remain independent to a more advanced age. Considering that over-50s are currently the largest age group in the Swiss population, such findings are extremely relevant.

Of course, the cost-cutting potential of physical exercise is not restricted to old age. In a new research project, Zahner is studying the benefi ts of “Personal Health Coaching”, an approach in which “couch potatoes” are prompted to exercise by regular phone calls. The method has shown promising results, with subjects exercising more frequently even after the end of the six-month coaching period. Plans are in place to expand the model, which could also be applied to diabetics, pregnant women, people with back problems, and older people. This kind of preventive strategy could save health insurance companies a great deal of money in future, Zahner predicts – after all, “exercise is often the best medicine.”

Lukas Zahner is Professor of Exercise and Training Science at the Department
of Sport, Exercise and Health (DSBG) at the University of Basel.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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