PE Scholars studies functional fitness of older adults to help guide social policy

A research on older adults in Hong Kong released today by the Department of Physical Education of Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) revealed that among a total of six items in the functional fitness test, Hong Kong older adults showed better lower extremity muscle strength but performed worse in overall functional fitness, including upper and lower body flexibility, upper extremity muscle strength, agility/balance, when compared with older adults in the US. In addition, men also demonstrated a lower capacity in lower body flexibility and aerobic endurance.
Professor Chung Pak-kwong, Head of the Department of Physical Education and project-in- charge revealed that the Department plans to establish a set of functional fitness normative statistics of older adults in the territory, aiming at providing solid normative data to inform and guide the development of future social policy. 
To this end, the Department invited over 900 participants, aged between 65 and 84, and divided them into eight groups according to gender and age. Various tests were conducted to collect data on their upper and lower extremity muscle strength, upper and lower body flexibility, agility, balance and aerobic endurance. The study results were published in an international journal Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics.
The research showed that the performance of Hong Kong older adults in some areas of the functional fitness test was comparatively not as good as that achieved by participants in an American study. The study found that the group of participants aged 80-84 performed worse than the group of participants aged 65-70, with more significant degradation observed in the areas of flexibility and balance. The older adults in the group who have an exercise habit demonstrated higher levels of fitness in most of the functional fitness tests than those who lead a sedentary lifestyle. 
Professor Chung said that in Hong Kong, the proportion of the population aged 65 or above will increase from 15%, or 1.07 million in 2014 to 36%, or 2.58 million in 2064. At the same time, the labour force will continuously shrink from 3.6 million in 2014 to 3.11 million in 2064. The aging population will become a major source of pressure on the medical sector and other social services. 
Since functional fitness can help maintain the self-care ability of older adults, he suggests promoting the concept of functional fitness so as to extend the length of time older adults can care for themselves. Professor Chung said, “According to a report released in 2012 by the National Institutes of Health of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the US spends over US$54 billion per annum to take care of older adults who have lost their self-care ability, and related expenditure is expected to increase sharply as the population continues to age. In view of this, if Hong Kong can prolong the older adults’ self-care ability, the government and society can save a huge amount of money in the areas of social care and medical services.   
Professor Chung added that Hong Kong should strengthen overall functional fitness training for older adults, especially in the areas of flexibility, upper extremity muscle strength, aerobic endurance and agility/balance. Moreover, the government should invest more to improve public awareness on active aging through education, professional training, planning and organising related activities, and should also train more professional tutors who have knowledge about functional fitness test and exercise in order to provide sufficient services to the rapidly aging population.  
He said that the normative data provided by the study could facilitate understanding of the functional fitness status of older adults in Hong Kong and assist in early detection of the risk of losing functionality in older individuals. In addition, the comprehensive understanding of the functional fitness status of Hong Kong’s older adults provides a basis for the construction of a service system that addresses issues related to ageing, and advocacy work for health-related policies for older adults. 
Professor Chung also stressed the need for specific exercise prevention and varying health promotion strategies to be implemented that takes into account gender differences in ageing-associated degradations of functional fitness and the variations in the turning points of degradation identified through the study. He believes these could inform policy-making, and thereby help Hong Kong society embrace the imminent challenges ahead.