Peter B. Anderson, PhD, Keri Diez, MEd, Susan F. Tynes, PhD
University of New Orleans
Department of Human Performance and Health Promotion
New Orleans, LA 70148
This article was presented as a poster at the annual Southern District AAHPERD Convention, Biloxi, MS., February 7, 1998. It is a primarily descriptive work that will hopefully lead to more sophisticated explorations of sexuality and physical activity among older adults.
Until recently, the very mention of the word "aging" brought about images of wrinkles, wheel chairs, withdrawal from all of life's activities. One common view of aging in the United States is that both athletic activity and sexual activity disappear with age. Today, older adults are realizing that they do not have to give in to these stereotypes and are trading in their rocking chairs and television sets for tennis shoes and roller blades.
According to Horn and Meer (1987), one of the most popular misconceptions about aging is that there is an inevitable decline, physically and sexually. The authors of a recent nation-wide survey on sexuality state that: "Our research data have proved the opposite to be true. At no age below 90 (we cite 90 because that was the age of the oldest person in our sample) did we find older people not having sex when they were interested and had a sex partner" (Janus & Janus, 1993, p. 21). In addition, 69% of the male and 74% of the female respondents age 65 or older reported at least weekly sexual activity. The authors concluded that overall, male sexual activity does not decline with age. Furthermore, the percentage of women reporting sexual activity a few times a week or more increased from 32% among the 51 to 64 year olds to 41% among those 65 or older (compared to 39% for women in their 40's). The authors of a large-scale Swedish population-based study concluded that intact sexual function was common among elderly men, even among those 70-80 years old (Helgason et al., 1996). Segraves and Segraves (1995) note that sexual function varies considerably within older aged cohorts and that fluctuations are related to biologic and social variables. For example, the majority of women do not report a decline in sexual functioning related to menopause, but women who are currently elderly were socialized into significantly different role expectations than women who are currently under 50. Schiavi, in a 1996 editorial about sexuality and male aging, notes that longitudinal study results indicate variability among the aging on many measures of physiological functioning and that in some instances there is enhanced functional capacity with advancing age. He further suggests that definitions of aging need to be broadened to include the influences of sociocultural factors on health and lifestyle practices that can contribute to the sexual well-being and satisfaction of the aged.
Research results have demonstrated that elderly men and women experience physiological benefits (Davis et al., 1994; Gillett, White, & Caserta, 1996; Nichols, Hitzelberger, Sherman, & Patterson, 1995; Siscovick, Laporte, & Newman, 1985; Verfaillie, Nichols, Turkel, & Hovell, 1997), psychological benefits (Mobily, Rubenstein, Lemke, O'Hara, & Wallace, 1996; Taylor, Sallis, & Needle, 1985), or a combination of both (Swoap, Norvell, Graves, & Pollock, 1994) resulting from exercise. For the elderly, increases in exercise are accompanied by increases in life satisfaction and functional capacity. Growing older becomes more of a pleasure and a privilege than a decline or a deterioration. Toseland and Sykes (1977) found that of 15 variables, the most important predictor of life satisfaction was activity level. Decreases in depressive symptoms among older adults have been associated with increases in VO2 max (Swoap et al.) and daily walking (Mobily et al.). Physiological benefits include increases in overall life expectancy as well as improvements in cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, stair climb, walking gate speed, balance, and strength (Davis et al.; Gillett et al.; Nichols et al.; Siscovick et al.; Verfaillie et al.).
In a nation-wide study conducted about the sexuality of persons 65 and
older by Mark Clements Research for Parade Magazine (1996), it was reported
that the happiest seniors are those who are sexually active. In addition,
those seniors who are sexually active are the most likely to be physically
active and exercise regularly. These results are supported by other researchers
and authors (e.g., Butler & Lewis, 1988; Francoeur, 1991) as the "use
it or lose it" recommendation about continuing regular sexual activity
throughout the lifespan (Mayo Clinic Health Letter, 1993). Recommendations
for healthy aging typically include exercise along with dietary health,
not smoking, and regular medical care among others (Vickery & Fries,
1993). Despite some evidence to the contrary (Shaulis, Golding, & Tandy,
1996), senior athletes are considered, at least by the general public,
to be healthier and, by inference, more sexually active, than their cohorts.
The purpose of this study was to explore the reported level of sexual activity
and sexual self-perception of a group of senior olympic athletes.
A group of faculty at the University of New Orleans (UNO), a large Southern,
urban university conceived a research project to test the fitness levels,
activity and training habits, sports-related attitudes, and sexuality of
Senior Olympic Athletes competing in the Regional Senior Olympic Games
in 1995. Following approval of the questionnaire by the Human and Animal
Subjects Committee at UNO, it was distributed to athletes who volunteered
to complete the 10-page survey during the main events of the Senior Olympic
Games. The questionnaire contained items related to demographics, physical
activity, attitudes and beliefs toward sports participation, general life
satisfaction, general life activity, and sexual behavior and self-image.
Questionnaire results were tabulated using SPSSX statistical package for
the social sciences. Only the data concerning demographics and sexuality
were considered for this report.
All of the respondents self-identified as heterosexual, the majority of the 19 male and 16 female Caucasian respondents were married (77.1 %), with an average age of 64.5 years, volunteered or were employed for 5-10 hours per week (67.6%), earned $30,000 or more (70%), and the sample was split between those who had high school or some college (45.7%) and those with college degrees or more (45.8%). Most of the participants ate somewhat balanced to very balanced meals (88.6%), were within 10 pounds of their ideal weight (68.6%), and never smoked or were recovered smokers (91.2%).
The respondents reported that they expressed themselves sexually (self-defined for each participant), alone or with a partner, an average of 6 times each month (range from 0 to 20 times). They reported a desire to increase their sexual expression to an average of 7.8 times per month (range from 0 to 20). There were no statistically significant differences in level of sexual expression (X2=9.17, df=10, ns) or desired level of sexual expression (X2 =18.24, df=11, ns) between the male and female respondents. Despite an overall drop in reported frequency in sexual expression related to the increasing age of the participants (mean = 9.2 for 50 year old's; mean = 4.6 for 70 year old's), there was no statistical difference in the average rate of sexual expression between the groups. Overall the respondents described themselves as being always or almost always affectionate (69%), confident (64.3%), contented (63%), enthusiastic (69.2%), faithful (81.5%), gentle (81.5%), loving (75%), and romantic (70.4%) in depicting themselves as sexual persons.
The limitations of this study include reliance on self-reported data,
and a small sample size. Other researchers have noted difficulties in studying
sexuality among older populations. Calamidas (1997), states that: "Despite
exciting social, psychological, and technological advances in health, the
sexual health of elderly individuals is still an area that is approached
with great conservativism and is shrouded with cultural, moral, and sometimes
even political, overtones" (p. 45). Older populations are also often reluctant
to discuss their sexuality, even when questioned anonymously. These limitations
reduce the generalizability of these results and need to be overcome in
future research. Future research needs to study the relationship between
exercise and sexuality among seniors by using comparison groups, by generating
larger samples, and by incorporating more measures into their data.
The results of this study show a higher rate of sexual expression for these seniors than previously reported by Clements (1994). Clements stated that Americans 65 and older (his sample had an average age of 74) express their sexuality 2.5 times per month on average and desire to express themselves 5.1 times on average. The discrepancy between these results could be due to the fact that our entire sample was comprised of athletes with an average age of 64.5 and most of them were married. As Clements reported, the more physically active seniors are likely to be the more sexually active as well. Also, married people of all ages are typically more likely to engage in regular sexual activity. Another contributor to this difference is that we asked about sexual expression alone or with a partner. Since the sexual expression variable was intentionally left open to individual interpretation, our results possibly captured a broader range of sexual behaviors than were reported in other studies. As noted by Janus and Janus (1993), older men, in particular, continue to masturbate throughout their lives. In addition to their reported high level of sexual activity, this sample of senior athletes also described their sexual self-image in mostly positive terms.
Other authors have noted that Senior Olympians may be competing with little or no training and be in no better physical condition than their non-Olympic cohorts (Shaulis, Golding, & Tandy, 1996). To test the idea that our better trained or more serious athletes were skewing our results, we conducted Chi Square tests of significance between those respondents who described themselves as "recreational" versus "serious" athletes and those who trained 6 or more hours per week versus those who trained less. Neither result was significant (X2=13.45, df=10, ns; X2=10.17, df=8, ns).
As more adults of the "baby boom" generation progress toward their 60's and beyond they need accurate information about the normal sexual changes that occur with aging and those changes that may be due to diminished health. In general, the results of this study support a tentative link between physical activity and sexual expression in older adults. In this and other studies (e.g., Clements, 1996; Janus & Janus, 1993), older Americans reported that their sexual expression was a positive aspect of their lives. For some it is more satisfying now than it has ever been. The most important message that we can give about sexuality and later life is that there is no upper age limit for healthy sexual function or satisfaction.
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