Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 51, Issue 2, pp 159–169 | Cite as

Physical Activity in Older Adults: an Ecological Approach

  • Christina M. Thornton
  • Jacqueline Kerr
  • Terry L. Conway
  • Brian E. Saelens
  • James F. Sallis
  • David K. Ahn
  • Lawrence D. Frank
  • Kelli L. Cain
  • Abby C. King
Original Article



Studies identifying correlates of physical activity (PA) at all levels of the ecological model can provide an empirical basis for designing interventions to increase older adults’ PA.


Applying ecological model principles, this study concurrently examined individual, psychosocial, and environmental correlates of older adults’ PA to determine whether built environment factors contribute to PA over and above individual/demographic and psychosocial variables.


Using a cross-sectional observational design, 726 adults, aged ≥66 years, were recruited from two US regions. Explanatory variables included demographics, self-efficacy, social support, barriers, and environmental variables measured by using geographic information systems (GIS) and self-report. Outcomes included reported walking for errands and leisure/exercise and accelerometer-measured daily moderate to vigorous PA (MVPA). Analyses employed mixed-model regressions with backward elimination.


For daily MVPA, the only significant environmental variable was GIS-based proximity to a park (p < 0.001) after controlling for individual/demographic and psychosocial factors. Walking for errands was positively related to four environmental variables: reported walking/cycling facilities (p < 0.05), GIS-based intersection density (p < 0.01), mixed land use (p < 0.01), and private recreation facilities (p < 0.01). Walking for leisure/exercise was negatively related to GIS-based mixed land use (p < 0.05). Non-Hispanic white race/ethnicity, self-efficacy, and social support positively related to all three PA outcomes (p < 0.05).


Correlates of older adults’ PA were found at all ecological levels, supporting multiple levels of influence and need for multilevel interventions. Environmental correlates varied by PA outcome. Walking for errands exhibited the most environmental associations.


Built environment Exercise Accelerometer Health promotion Public health Aging 


Compliance with Ethical Standards


This study was supported by US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute grant R01 HL077141. The sponsor had no role in the preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript for publication.

Authors’ Statement of Conflict of Interest and Adherence to Ethical Standards

Authors Christina M. Thornton, Jacqueline Kerr, Terry L. Conway, Brian E. Saelens, James F. Sallis, David K. Ahn, Lawrence D. Frank, Kelli L. Cain, and Abby C. King declare that they have no conflict of interest. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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Copyright information

© The Society of Behavioral Medicine 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christina M. Thornton
    • 1
  • Jacqueline Kerr
    • 2
  • Terry L. Conway
    • 3
  • Brian E. Saelens
    • 4
  • James F. Sallis
    • 3
  • David K. Ahn
    • 5
  • Lawrence D. Frank
    • 6
    • 7
  • Kelli L. Cain
    • 3
  • Abby C. King
    • 5
    • 8
  1. 1.Joint Doctoral Program in Public Health, Health BehaviorUniversity of California, San Diego/San Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.Department of Family Medicine and Public HealthUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Family Medicine and Public HealthUniversity of California, San DiegoSan DiegoUSA
  4. 4.Department of PediatricsUniversity of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research InstituteSeattleUSA
  5. 5.Stanford Prevention Research Center, Department of MedicineStanford University School of MedicinePalo AltoUSA
  6. 6.School of Community and Regional PlanningUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  7. 7.Urban Design 4 Health, Inc.SeattleUSA
  8. 8.Division of Epidemiology, Department of Health Research and Policy, and Stanford Prevention Research Center, Department of MedicineStanford University School of MedicineStanfordUSA

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