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Healthcare professionals say they want more tailored training and support to help promote and improve physical activity levels in older adults, recent research by the Institute of Public Health (IPH) has found. National guidelines on physical activity in Ireland recommend, on a weekly basis, 150 minutes of moderate activity, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or an equivalent combination of both for older adults (65+ years). However, data shows that as few as one-in-three older adults in Ireland were getting enough physical activity before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, with more recent evidence pointing to falling physical activity levels during the pandemic. While healthcare professionals are well placed to promote physical activity to older adults, many say they do not have the necessary training and support to promote the health benefits of physical activity and weekly recommended guidelines to older patients.

As part of the Generating Active Lives in Older People (GALOP) research project, the IPH surveyed a cross-section of healthcare professionals about their knowledge and practice of promoting physical activity to older adults. The online survey was carried out between August and October 2020 and the findings are based on responses from 347 healthcare professionals in general practice, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and nursing in Ireland and Northern Ireland. While the majority of respondents agreed that discussing physical activity was part of their role, most indicated that they had not received suitable training to initiate discussions with patients. Key findings from an online survey of 347 healthcare professionals in Ireland and Northern Ireland are outlined below. On national guidelines promoting physical activity: 42.7% said they were aware of national guidelines for physical activity for the general population. 35.4% said they were aware of national guidelines for physical activity for older people. 24.5% correctly answered questions about current guidelines for physical activity in older adults.

48.7% reported that they ‘never’ formally assess whether a patient is active or inactive as part of routine practice. On promoting physical activity: 70.3% agreed that discussing physical activity is their job. 30.5% indicated they had a clear plan on how to initiate discussions about physical activity in routine practice with older adults. 12.1% said they ‘always’ signposted patients to other physical activity services. On training and support: 30.0% agreed they had received suitable training to initiate conversations with patients about physical activity. 47.6% said they were aware of resources to further develop their knowledge and practice in this area. 68.6% agreed that routinely assessing, discussing or prescribing physical activity with older adults would benefit public health. Covid-19 impacts: 81.6% agreed that healthcare professionals can play an increased role in promoting physical activity to older adults as part of routine practice, in particular post-Covid.

Director of Ageing Research and Development at the IPH, Prof Roger O’Sullivan, said the findings highlighted an opportunity for healthcare professionals to play a key role in promoting physical activity to older patients. “There is a wealth of evidence showing that physically active older adults experience healthier ageing, a better quality of life, and are at lower risk of developing illnesses, than those who are not physically active. Physical activity levels, however, remain low among older adults in Ireland,” Prof O’Sullivan said. “There is an opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of older adults by increasing focus on prevention as well as treatment. This research highlights the need for appropriate supports and training to enable healthcare professionals to promote physical activity and national guidelines as part of routine patient care,” he added.