Engaging the Aging Workforce Through Targeted Health Promotion Programming

It is certainly no secret that our nation's workforce, a cohort that represents 63 percent of the US population, is getting older. In 2010, US Census Bureau projected that one-third of the workforce will be age 50 or older by the year 2016. And while scores of scientific literature allude to progressive and global decrements in physiological and neurocognitive functioning throughout the lifespan, aging employees should be viewed, even revered as their organization's most valuable commodity.


An employee with more industry and real-world experience within the workplace confers a distinct competitive advantage that cannot be replicated. These individuals have often evolved into subject matter experts or knowledge leaders by virtue of the time they have spent in their respective professions, far exceeding the 10,000-hour rule Malcolm Gladwell extolls as the threshold of expertise.


But these employees come with challenges, especially when it comes to appealing to them through organizational wellness initiatives. Not only do they have more miles on the odometer of their 656 muscled, 206-or-so boned bodies, but they have mounting competing demands. In the workplace, they may have more "bandwidth" -- a worn out buzzword that is defined as an amalgamation of responsibilities.


Outside of the workplace, they might have more personal "bandwidth" to account for -- increasing familial, household and perhaps community obligations, all of which make finding time to engage in healthy behaviors even more difficult. Some say that it is easiest to instill healthy behaviors earlier in life, before competing demands and added responsibilities make their entry.


While preliminary research has shown that early adoption of physical activity can improve cardiometabolic health and motor skill development (1), immune function (4) and sleep quality (2), better health and physical fitness can be achieved at any point during the lifespan. But tailoring programming that accounts for older and busier employees within the workplace has a few caveats.

1. Take stock of the immense variability in physiological factors among older employees.

While normative benchmarks pigeonhole physical activity program participants by age, a more suitable alternative is to grant voluntary participation while offering the freedom to self-select an exercise modality. Some may decide on walking or joint-friendlier options such as biking, swimming, or gliding on an elliptical, whereas others may gravitate to individual or team recreational sports or leisure activities. Establish physical activity guidelines that incorporate recommendations for frequency, intensity, duration, and progression. Also, include viable and equally beneficial alternatives for those with injuries or adaptive needs.

2. Consider and appreciate psychosocial factors, which independently or in concert, serve as key determinants in the success of physical activity programs (3).

Each entrant's readiness to change, self-efficacy, and knowledge and beliefs, should be gauged. While means to address and bolster them through targeted health education and messaging should be intertwined with the physical activity program.

3. Get the office family or family at home involved

The role of social support should not be overlooked as research has shown that support from friends and family members directly correlates with increased moderate to vigorous physical activity among older adult populations. Weave in participation-based team challenges and encourage employees of varying abilities and age groups to create teams.

4. Safe environments are conducive to program success

While most companies are unable to designate space for physical activity programming and often cannot afford the luxury of having a full-time health and fitness professional to supervise programming, simple, cost-effective measures such as mapping outdoor or indoor walking paths, and initiating creative sightseeing and "treasure hunt" campaigns may get employees excited andmoving.

5. Time matters

Since many employees may be pressed for time, organizations should strongly consider allotting time during the day in which employees are encouraged to engage in physical activity. Devoting just 2.5 hours of physical activity at work per week at a dental practice, or 30 minutes each day during a standard five-day work week demonstrated improvements in productivity -- increases in patient volume and procedures (6).


It has been well-established that physical activity promotes improvements in countless biomarkers of health and effectively serves as a countermeasure to the onset of many chronic diseases. (5)Developing relevant and feasible strategies to engage older workers in physical activity is a prudent investment in a valuable segment of human capital.


Health and wellness professionals should concentrate future efforts towards bolstering participation through adaptive programming that addresses the variability of physical capabilities, personal preferences, and accumulation of demands that often coincide with an employee's age.

About the Authors

Joseph Giandonato, MBA, MS, CSCS is the co-founder of Healthy Human Capital, LLC, and presently serves as a consultant to organizations, ranging from universities to sports teams at various levels on best practices in organizational wellness, human performance, and injury prevention.


Victor Tringali, MS, CSCS is the founder and managing partner of Healthy Human Capital, LLC. Mr. Tringali has received numerous awards and recognition for his achievements in health promotion, fitness, and organizational wellness and has a particular interest in improving health among aging and working populations.

References

  1. Adamo, K.B., Barrowman, N., Naylor, P.J., Yaya, S., Harvey, A., Grattan, K.P., & Goldfield, G.S. (2014). Activity Begins in Childhood (ABC) - inspiring healthy active behaviour inpreschoolers: study protocol for a cluster randomized controlled trial. Trials, 15, 305.
  2. Christie, A.D., Seery, E., & Kent, J.A. (2016). Physical activity, sleep quality, and self-reported fatigue across the adult lifespan. Experimental Gerontology, 77, 7-11.
  3. DiPietro, L. (2001). Physical activity in aging: changes in patterns and their relationship to health and function. Journals of Gerontology, 56A, 13-22.
  4. Turner, J.E. (2016). Is immunosenescence influenced by our lifetime "dose" of exercise? Biogerontology, 17, 581-602.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008). Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
  6. von Thiele Schwarz, U. & Hasson, H. (2011). Employee self-rated productivity and objective organizational production levels: effects of worksite health interventions involving reducedwork hours and physical exercise. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 53, 838-844.