Back in my graduate research days, as an undergraduate Exercise Science major, I was fortunate to be a part of a pilot study in senior fitness assessments. The premise of this study was to institute a “gold standard” senior fitness assessment that was both reliable and valid; and with that, it was also effective in measuring fitness levels before starting an exercise program. My job: data collection.
The Study – Seniors and Sex
I was given the task to screen potential participants and administer the assessment in two separate visits. The total number of subjects was 200 both male and female, age 40 and up. For the purposes of this study, 40 was the minimum age of our “geriatric” population. Why so young, you ask? Well, we believed that at or around age 40, most of a person’s poor physical and nutritional choices and/or genetic dispositions would start to manifest in everyday life and in specific areas of a person’s life.
What started out as a simple screening and assessment took a hard right and interesting turn to the topic of sex. Out of the 200 participants, 180 asked about sex during the second visit, in which the results and the compensation for the study were given. Needless to say, I was shocked and my graduate research mentor, intrigued.
There I was, an early 30-something grad assistant, being asked for sexual advice from a fitness perspective by a bunch of older adults, with whom I could not relate. I asked my mentor, “How do I answer their questions? I’m no expert and I’m at least 15 years or more their junior…what would I know about sexual health and aging?”
Her response was simple: “Find out. And whatever you find, feel free to go in your own direction.”
- So, I did and here’s what I learned: My first question was “why me?” Why were they asking me in the first place? With the next inquiry, I started to ask the question.
What I was told was two-fold: 1. Their primary care doctor didn’t have the time to field such questions. 2. I was young enough to learn and pass on their wisdom and plight to my peers to help educate.
- Then I started asking what changed and when: Having researched what “normal” aging looks like physically, I started to learn what changes come with normal aging and how they affect sexual problems. Because these changes can and will sometimes affect the enjoyment and ability in sexual activity, I began to notice the following with the 180 subjects: Vaginal dryness, pain during sex amongst the females, and frequent Erectile Dysfunction (ED) amongst the males. Across the board, normal aging contributed to changes in one’s physical functions and features had a great impact on self-image and body image. Inevitably, these concerns gave way to anxiety and fear of performance and seemingly diminished youthful attractiveness.
- Next, I wanted to find out what causes sexual dysfunction outside of normal aging. What I found were the numerous illnesses, disabilities, and even medical treatments such as surgery that can impact if a person enjoys sex. The most common causes among my group: Chronic/acute pain, depression, arthritis, and medications.
- My unprofessional, non-clinical, non-degreed, and non-doctorate advice was based in common sense and the simple matriculation of exercise into everyday life, including sex. After great emphasis and suggestion that they continue to seek their doctor’s advice, we knew they had been cleared to start an exercise program because we had confirmation before participation in our pilot study. With that, I knew that I didn’t have a fancy degree, so my suggestions needed to be based on a couple of simple truths:
- Sex is a physical activity, so do more physical activities. Often the look of surprise followed this simple truth, as if the connection between sex and everyday activities was never considered.
- Do physical and social activities that are just as enjoyable as sex. This was a major eye opener for those who wanted to move more and didn’t know where to start. Some loved to dance, some loved to garden, and some just loved to walk the mall. No matter the activity, the point is to MOVE!
- When they keep the blood flowing, the “juices” keep flowing…figuratively speaking, of course. However, the imagery was impactful: self-efficacy is a powerful motivator. It was like a light switch came on as we discussed how the simple act of physical activity begets greater quality of life in general. One good thing leads to another good thing.
The Results – Seniors and Sex
Without boring you with the methodical research details, let’s just say that I learned really quickly with this group that later-life sexuality is one of few and highly coveted indicators of quality of life. And if we, as young and informed fitness professionals are willing to tread these deep waters of the geriatric experience, we may find an ocean of valuable information that not only equips us but awaits us on our own aging journey and the aging journeys of our clients.
National Institute on Aging. July 2013. National Institutes of Health U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved on Monday, November 23, 2015 from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/sexuality-later-life