Mental health is an essential part of well-being and health. Regardless of age, it is a resource that helps each of us cope in everyday life and supports functional ability and success in life. We accumulate mental resources through life experience. Because of this, older people often have a better understanding and more wisdom to put things into perspective, as well as skills to overcome tough situations and handle difficult feelings, than you would think.
The deterioration of physical or cognitive functional ability and the fear of losing the right to self-determination is one factor related to ageing that jeopardises mental health. The importance of physical activity in maintaining health and well-being as an individual ages is undeniable. Despite this, not everyone is sufficiently active, even though activities and opportunities are available. For some people, all it would take is someone else asking them to come along, as they do not take the initiative to go out alone. Others do not go out even when asked, for one reason or another.
The high barriers to physical activity are not always physical or visible on the outside. The elderly are a diverse group of individuals with different personalities. They were born in different decades and have experienced different things and eras, are in different situations in life and possess different amounts of knowledge, skills and other resources of various types. Because of this, their barriers to physical activity are also personal. For example, physical inactivity may be related to negative experiences or different types of fears and feelings of shame. They may be in low spirits. No interesting activities are available or they have no knowledge of them. They do not have a likeminded friend with whom to go out. They feel like they do not belong or they value completely different things.
Identifying abilities and accepting the situation
Well-meaning advice and encouragement to be physically active will lead nowhere if the individual feels that they are not listened to and appreciated. At worst, they may feel that they are not enough as they are and are unable to realise themselves in the way they want. The fear of not knowing how to do things or being unable to reach the recommended levels may be discouraging and invoke feelings of inferiority.
People cannot always identify their own strengths and resources – or even hopes and desires. Because of this, getting people who engage in little physical activity to be more active often requires individual support. Every one of us can be a supporter of an agile mind for someone else. This requires genuine encounters, being present and listening. Paying attention to the things that are already going well strengthens the person’s self-image as a capable and valuable individual.
For the sake of motivation and commitment, it is important that each individual gets to decide for themselves what increasing physical activity would mean in their own life. Doing something that the individual enjoys and that is important to them brings motivation to make an effort and also try out new things. Curiosity and the desire to learn new things are important mental skills. For their part, successful trials strengthen the feeling of being capable, maintain faith in the future and provide inspiration to do more. Actual physical activity may come as a by-product of other activities as mental resources increase.
Even if the number of steps taken falls below the recommendations, mental health is still strengthened by keeping busy and moving about in a way that suits and feels good to each individual in their everyday life. A flexible and tenacious mind can come up with new ways of staying active and taking good care of itself. Good mental health also includes the ability to ask for and accept help when needed.
This article was written by Project Planner Paula Noresvuo of the Liikkuva mieli ikääntyessä (Maintaining an Agile Mind When Ageing) project of MIELI Mental Health Finland.