CENIE · 03 October 2022

Healthy ageing, effort and exercise: a project on physical capacity

If the first five years of life mark the trajectory of a child's physical, emotional and mental health and learning skills, which are the cornerstones of longevity, physical activity throughout life will remain key to quality ageing. Physical activity and avoiding sedentary lifestyles will be our best weapon for better health also in our own old age, no matter how old we are. 

Health promotion involves learning healthy habits and maintaining them, among which physical activity plays a particularly important role. I don't think this statement is anything new: eating healthy and doing moderate exercise are neither magic recipes nor unknown to the majority of the population, although it is perhaps more complex to define what healthy eating is or how to be able to avoid laziness and stay active. 

CENIE is carrying out a series of research into areas that would contribute to greater and better longevity; it is not just a question of living longer, but of being able to enjoy those extra years in better health and contributing (giving back) to society as much as we can. Undoubtedly, among these areas, the implementation of the physical capacity of older people is key, being health promotion fundamental to preserve autonomy and functionality and thus, to aspire to a higher quality of life. Beyond a theoretical exercise, a research process has been carried out with older people in the city of Zamora, who have voluntarily decided to participate in the project that I am sharing with you today. Why in Zamora? For our international readers, Zamora is the capital of the province of the same name, in the Autonomous Community of Castilla y León (northwest Spain, very close to Portugal) and has just over 60,000 inhabitants. This city has a number of key characteristics to take into account when analysing longevity, old age and ageing in Spain and Portugal. One reason is that it is an area facing depopulation; we talk a lot about depopulation, but we sometimes forget that it affects not only very small towns, but also medium-sized and smaller cities, and particularly often provincial capitals. Zamora, in fact, is the provincial capital that has lost the most inhabitants in percentage terms in recent years, and is the province in Spain that will lose the most inhabitants in 2021. It also leads the ranking of Spanish provinces in terms of ageing (yes, above Orense, in Galicia, which is close behind) and is the second province in Europe with the fewest children; only 9.3% of the population is under 15 years of age. It has few children, but a considerable number of centenarians: right now more than 100 people are over 100 years old in Zamora and if we look at population projections (and we are not attacked by a new pandemic or hordes of zombies, which could be anything) this figure will increase rapidly. 

Returning to the aforementioned areas to promote quality ageing, one of the projects being developed there has been on physical capacity and led by Ignacio Pedrosa, of the Information and Communication Technology Centre Foundation (CTIC). The people at CTIC are those very modern people who are dedicated to quantum computing, artificial intelligence and immersive technologies that appear very complex to the layman, and among them there are exciting projects. I'm not just talking about "immersidra" - which teaches us how to pour cider virtually and which I still don't know how to sign up for or whether they do non-virtual internships - but about other kinds of innovative projects that mix technology and society. The one we are talking about today, promoted by CENIE, is about the implementation of a system for the promotion of active ageing in people over 65 and was presented on 14 September in Zamora. 

The aim of this study was to analyse the impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as a tool to improve the quality of life of the elderly from the physical, psychological and social perspectives. Specifically, the aim was to promote physical capacity through the development and deployment of an innovative technological solution, based on Smart wearable devices (wearable technology, we could translate, i.e. that we wear them as part of our attire) and gamification techniques (i.e. transferring the mechanics of games to other areas. In this case, physical exercise). To put it very simply: how the use of step clocks and gamification could contribute to promoting exercise among people over 65.

The project faced several problems, as is often the case in any research, as we are never able to control all the variables, and even less so when we are talking about social subjects. By linking the concepts "technology" and "old age", some may think that it was mainly reluctance on the part of the older population: the project was based on the need to carry a fitness device with them all the time, to have and use a smartphone, to download an app and download the data produced from time to time. But this was not the problem, and the fact that it was not a problem stemmed from the human dimension: the facilitators (wonderful women, who were quick to connect with the participants) assured the older people that they would explain to them how to use it as often as necessary. The success of this statement is not only in the effective availability, but also in the fact that the older person felt supported: no one would judge them if it cost a little more. Moreover, there would be a person explaining the use if there really was a problem. We talk a lot about the digital divide (you know how I feel about it; something similar to the design of pineapple jars), assuming that there is some sort of standard inability of older people to use technology, when what we are usually dealing with is a human divide: that of the non-dissemination of knowledge. More or less quickly, the participants learned to use the smart wearable device, but the pandemic created some extra difficulties. The project originally set out to count the mobility of the elderly in a certain environment, one of those we call "cholesterol road", so that, when passing through a certain point, an application installed on our mobile phone would be able to record the distance walked. As we know, in the pandemic stages it has been necessary to respect the distances and, on the path in question, this would not have been possible. Faced with the difficulties, the use of a smart watch was proposed, which allowed the active and continuous monitoring of the participants, being able to measure how much walking was done throughout the day and whether a series of milestones were met. 

Beyond the results, which you can see here, the results contradicted some of the long-held beliefs that older people are immobile and sedentary. But it also revealed other aspects, such as the role of competitiveness and self-improvement in old age, demonstrating that age is not an impediment to motivation. If people surpassed their own milestones, the electronic device gave them a virtual prize, a recognition of their achievement. This was achieved in a form of self-recognition, motivating the participants to continue being part of the project. Moreover, participation in the project became a form of social participation; being part of it meant being part of a small community, in which the facilitators sheltered and supported the older person's participation. Participation in activities of all kinds is not only a perfect excuse to promote physical capacity and health, but also a way to fight against loneliness; one's own and that of others. 

You can see a video summary of the project here:

Under the framework of: Programa Operativo Cooperación Transfronteriza España-Portugal
Sponsors: Fundación General de la Universidad de Salamanca Fundación del Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas Direção Geral da Saúde - Portugal Universidad del Algarve - Portugal