Football-led health programmes effective in promoting physical activity in older people

Health programmes run by professional football clubs are effective in promoting physical and social activity amongst over-55s, research at Leeds Beckett University has revealed.

To read the full research paper click here

The research, published in the BMC Public Health journal and carried out by researchers at the Institute for Sport, Physical Activity and Leisure at Leeds Beckett, evaluated the Football Foundation’s Extra Time programme, designed to create opportunities for older adults to participate in positive physical and sporting activities.


Lead researcher Dr Dan Parnell, a senior lecturer in in Sport Business Management, explained: “Football clubs have a unique place within the hearts of the communities they serve and offer memories and meaning to those that engage with them.  Findings from our study indicate that a badge and brand can help to attract individuals to participate in physical activity programmes, who might otherwise be difficult to reach with more traditional approaches.”

The Extra Time programme is funded by the Football Foundation and Sport Relief (supported by Age UK) and tackles three important issues for older people – physical health, emotional wellbeing and social isolation.  In its first year the Extra Time programme was delivered by 15 Premier League and Football League clubs, led by a designated community practitioner. Each club was awarded approximately £10,000 to deliver the programme. In year two, 13 clubs remained, supplemented by seven clubs starting new interventions. These interventions varied by club, but included walking football, Zumba, chaired-based exercises, exer-gaming and social activities from bingo to arts and crafts.

Paul Thorogood, Chief Executive of the Football Foundation, said: “Thanks to investment from our Funding Partners, the Premier League, The FA and the Government, via Sport England, the Football Foundation and Sport Relief (supported by Age UK) delivered the Extra Time programme, which successfully created opportunities for over-55s to participate in different sporting activities. I welcome this research which underlines how Extra Time harnessed the power of football to help tackle three important issues for older people – physical health, emotional wellbeing and social isolation. These findings demonstrate that a football club’s badge had a positive influence on the participants’ interest in the programme, with those who took part identifying reduced feelings of social isolation and improved physical health as a result.”

Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity and Health at Leeds Beckett added: “Older adults represent a core priority group for physical activity and public health policy and the rising cost of health and social care for older adults represents a major public health issue.  We know that they are a diverse group with complex health profiles and needs and there are a number of barriers to their participation in physical activity, which can lead to obesity, poor emotional wellbeing, decreased functional capacity and increased social isolation.

“Supporting physical activity opportunities in older adults can play a powerful role in preventing and managing conditions such as obesity and cardiovascular disease as well as helping to maintain musculoskeletal strength, improving endurance and flexibility which are important assets for functional daily living.  Physical activity can also reduce anxiety and stress, whilst also helping people become more socially connected through increased and positive social interaction. By helping this group get more active, and in doing so – more socially included – we can help them work towards receiving the full benefits of physical activity.”

The Leeds Beckett research study examined the implementation and outcomes of the Extra Time programme with the researchers analysing 486 surveys with participants as well as interviews with participants and project staff from the football clubs who delivered the activity.  Social interaction was found to be of most importance to participants with the club badge also being important in helping to improve engagement.  Extra Time participants told the researchers that they wanted to be listened to, wanted flexible age-appropriate programmes offering plenty of different types of physical and social activities and also activities that are fun and developmental and those that offer extensive opportunities for social engagement.

Following analysis of the data collected, the researchers found that the Extra Time programme was especially effective in reaching and recruiting participants of white British decent, across a wide range of age and physical abilities. Although many attendees were men almost as many were women; this was a surprise as was women’s interest in attending alongside their male partners. Consistent with previous research, female participants often reported that the programme provided an opportunity to attend with their male partners. This suggests that female partners can have a unique impact on male participation. Female participants recognised the ‘leverage’ that being associated with football and a professional football club, represented for their male partners.

While the attraction of football and the club created initial interest and reach for some participants, many participants reported that the most attractive aspect of the intervention was the regular opportunity for social support and interaction; this included the opportunity to meet new people.

Participants also reported that they enjoyed being active through a varied programme of social and physical activities. These activities were offered routinely and for a number of participants weekly routine was central to their attendance.

Finally, the actions of the intervention staff (i.e., community practitioners/coaches) who led the activities were central to programme success as they shared a commitment to providing a meaningful, relevant and enjoyable programme of health improvement activities. In doing so, regular communication with participants was important in shaping provision around their needs.

Dr Andy Pringle, Reader in Physical Activity, Exercise and Health at Leeds Beckett said: “The Extra Time programme offered a number of insights that may help to refine the planning and delivering of future programmes of football-led health improvement with older adults. Older adults represent a group with widely varying health needs and physical capacities and it is important, therefore, to consider the type, volume and intensity of activities on offer, and how they correspond to any participant’s interests, motives, and capability. Findings emerging from this study are important for delivering effective health improvement programmes for older adults in football settings.”

Speaking about the impact of the study on future research, Research Officer Stephen Zwolinsky added: “Establishing Extra Time styled interventions may be valuable given that they have the capacity to stabilize and improve several behaviours that impact important indices of public health. Generating these improvements will require coherent dialog with older adults in the first instance and subsequent action across the social gradient.”

Original press release click here.


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