Understanding the relationships between the physical environment and physical activity in older adults: a systematic review of qualitative studies
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014, 11:79 doi:10.1186/1479-5868-11-79Published: 17 July 2014
While physical activity (PA) provides many physical, social, and mental health benefits for older adults, they are the least physically active age group. Ecological models highlight the importance of the physical environment in promoting PA. However, results of previous quantitative research revealed inconsistencies in environmental correlates of older adults' PA that may be explained by methodological issues. Qualitative studies can inform and complement quantitative research on environment-PA relationships by providing insight into how and why the environment influences participants' PA behaviors. The current study aimed to provide a systematic review of qualitative studies exploring the potential impact of the physical environment on older adults' PA behaviors.
A systematic search was conducted in databases of various disciplines, including: health, architecture and urban planning, transportation, and interdisciplinary databases. From 3,047 articles identified in the initial search, 31 articles published from 1996 to 2012 met all inclusion criteria. An inductive content analysis was performed on the extracted findings to identify emerging environmental elements related to older adults' PA. The identified environmental elements were then grouped by study methodologies [indoor interviews (individual or focus groups) vs spatial methods (photo-voice, observations, walk-along interviews)].
This review provides detailed information about environmental factors that potentially influence older adults' PA behaviors. These factors were categorized into five themes: pedestrian infrastructure, safety, access to amenities, aesthetics, and environmental conditions. Environmental factors especially relevant to older adults (i.e., access to facilities, green open spaces and rest areas) tended to emerge more frequently in studies that combined interviews with spatial qualitative methods.
Findings showed that qualitative research can provide in-depth information on environmental elements that influence older adults' PA. Future qualitative studies on the physical environment and older adults' PA would benefit from combining interviews with more spatially-oriented methods. Multidisciplinary mixed-methods studies are recommended to establish quantitative relationships complemented with in-depth qualitative information.