, Volume 83, Issue 5, pp 954-969

Volunteering: A Physical Activity Intervention for Older Adults—The Experience Corps® Program in Baltimore

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Abstract

There is compelling evidence supporting the benefits of increased regular physical activity in older adults. The Experience Corps program in Baltimore MD was designed in part as a community based approach to increasing physical activity that would also appeal to older adults who have historically not utilized health promotion programs. The Baltimore Experience Corps program places older volunteers in public elementary schools for 15 h a week in roles designed to improve the academic outcomes of children and, simultaneously, increase the physical, cognitive and social activity of volunteers. This paper reports on the change in physical activity levels among older adults associated with participation in the Baltimore Experience Corps. In a pilot randomized controlled evaluation, older adults were randomly assigned to Experience Corps (EC participants) or a waiting list control group. Ages ranged from 59–86 years, 96% were African American, 94% were women, and 84% had annual incomes less than $15,000. EC participants were required to serve ≥15 h a week. At follow-up after 4–8 months, an analysis of 113 randomized volunteers revealed 53% of the EC participants were more active than the previous year by self-report, as compared to 23% of the controls (p<0.01). When adjusted for age, gender and education, there was a trend toward increased physical activity in the EC participants as calculated by a kilocalorie per week increase of 40%, versus a 16% decrease in the controls (p=0.49). EC participants who reported “low activity” at baseline experienced an average 110% increase in their physical activity at follow-up. Among the controls who were in the “low activity” group at baseline, there was, on average, only a 12% increase in physical activity (p=0.03). Among those who were previously active, there was no significant difference (p=0.30). The pilot results suggest that a high intensity volunteer program that is designed as a health promotion intervention can lead, in the short-term, to significant improvements in the level of physical activity of previously inactive older adult volunteers.

Drs. Tan, Xue, Carlson, and Fried are with the Johns Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health; Tao Li is currently with the Social Security Administration.