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Psychology & Health

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On the importance of a positive view on ageing for physical exercise

among middle-aged and older adults: Cross-sectional and longitudinal

Susanne Wurma; Martin J. Tomasikb; Clemens Tesch-Rmera

Deutsches Zentrum fr Altersfragen, Berlin 12101, Germany b Friedrich-Schiller-University, Jena
07743, Germany
First published on: 04 November 2008

To cite this Article Wurm, Susanne , Tomasik, Martin J. and Tesch-Rmer, Clemens(2010) 'On the importance of a positive

view on ageing for physical exercise among middle-aged and older adults: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings',
Psychology & Health, 25: 1, 25 42, First published on: 04 November 2008 (iFirst)
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08870440802311314
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870440802311314


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Psychology and Health

Vol. 25, No. 1, January 2010, 2542

On the importance of a positive view on ageing for physical

exercise among middle-aged and older adults: Cross-sectional
and longitudinal findings
Susanne Wurma*, Martin J. Tomasikb and Clemens Tesch-Romera

Deutsches Zentrum fur Altersfragen, Manfred-von-Richthofen Str. 2, Berlin 12101, Germany;

Friedrich-Schiller-University, Am Steiger 3/1, Jena 07743, Germany

Downloaded By: [Wurm, Susanne] At: 10:34 30 August 2010

(Received 19 January 2007; final version received 20 January 2008)

Physical activity is one of the most important health behaviours associated with
the prevention and management of chronic diseases in older adults, but this
potential is often insufficiently used. The present study examined for the first time
whether a positive view on ageing (PVA) may contribute to a higher level of
physical activity. Analyses were based on the German Ageing Survey, a
longitudinal population-based survey (N 4034) on middle-aged and older
adults (4085 years) conducted in the years 1996 and 2002. As hypothesised,
middle-aged adults with a PVA not only engaged in physical activity in the form
of sports more frequently; they even increased this activity provided that they
were healthy enough to do so. For older adults, PVA was particularly associated
with more regular walking and increases of walking over time. Because walking is
often still recommended in spite of health problems, it was remarkable that even
older people with worse health walked just as regularly as those with good health,
provided that they had a positive view on ageing. The results shed some light on
recent findings about the importance of PVA for health and longevity and point
to a partial mediation between PVA and health by physical exercise.
Keywords: positive view on ageing; physical activity; exercise; health; longitudinal

Physical activity continues to be a key factor for the prevention and management of many
risk factors, chronic diseases and functional disabilities associated with ageing up to old
age (e.g. Blumenthal & Gullette, 2002; Paterson, Govindasamy, Vidmar, Cunningham, &
Koval, 2004). Moreover, physical activity may lead to a shorter period of disability at the
end of life (Hubert, Bloch, & Oehlert, 2002) and to a lower risk of premature mortality,
even in the case of activities of low or moderate intensity (Fried et al., 1998; Landi et al.,
2004; Paffenbarger et al., 1994). However, a large number of people remain sedentary.
Already from early adulthood this portion grows steadily, meaning that older persons are
the most sedentary segment of the adult population (European Opinion Research Group
EEIG, 2003; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996). In contrast to

*Corresponding author. Email: susanne.wurm@dza.de

ISSN 08870446 print/ISSN 14768321 online
2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/08870440802311314

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S. Wurm et al.

younger people, who often name lack of time as a main cause for a sedentary lifestyle,
older people often report health problems as the main barrier to physical exercise (for a
review: Schutzer & Graves, 2004).
Both moderate and vigorous exercise is favoured in physical activity recommendations
(e.g. World Health Organization, 1997). Because middle-aged adults have both fewer
health problems and higher physical activity than older adults, recommendations for
middle-aged adults usually refer to activities with higher energy expenditure; these are
particularly important for weight regulation and cardiovascular health. Although, these
health goals are also important for older adults (e.g. Goldberg & King, 2007), moderate
physical activities have the highest priority in the recommendations for older age groups.
This is due both to the high prevalence of a sedentary lifestyle and to a higher prevalence
of chronic diseases and disabilities (DiPietro, 2001). Even moderate physical activity can
yield important health benefits for maintaining functional ability and independence
(DiPietro, 2001). By contrast, vigorous physical activities such as fast cycling or tennis are
not always indicated for individuals with cardiovascular or musculoskeletal disorders, in
particular if these are caused by decades of sedentary living habits and a progressive loss of
musculoskeletal function (Blair, Kohl, Gordon, & Paffenbarger, 1992).
Since it has been shown that health behaviour is beneficial up to old age, there is
growing interest not only in the determinants of physical exercise for younger age groups
but for older people as well (Morley & Flaherty, 2002). Population-based studies indicate
that demographic variables such as gender (with less physical exercise among women),
socio-economic status and education (with less physical exercise among people with lower
educational levels, or incomes), and social support by friends or spouses influence the
prevalence of physical exercise throughout the lifespan (e.g. DiPietro, 2001).
Moreover, mechanisms of self-regulation, such as goal setting, self-monitoring and
relapse-prevention training and in particular functional optimism (which includes both
positive outcome expectancies and self-efficacy beliefs; Schwarzer, 1994), have been shown
to be important psychological factors for the adoption and maintenance of physical
exercise. Most of these findings were based on intervention studies (e.g. King, 2001;
McAuley, Jerome, Elavsky, Marquez, & Ramsey, 2003), while large population-based
surveys rarely examine psychological factors (Newsom, Kaplan, Huguet, & McFarland,
2004). However, people who take part in an intervention programme generally already
possess a basic motivation for health behaviour change, that is, these people are at least in
a contemplation stage (Prochaska & Velicer, 1997) and thus differ from the general
population. We, therefore, still know little about psychological factors involved in the
promotion of regular exercise among older adults in everyday life, apart from intervention
programmes (e.g. Lachman et al., 1997). What is it then that motivates older people to be
physically active or even to increase their activity, independent of intervention
programmes? The purpose of the present study is to address one of these possible
motivators by examining whether a positive view on ageing (PVA) might promote physical
exercise; this is explained in more detail below.
In recent years, several longitudinal studies have shown that older people who have a
more PVA maintain better physical and functional health than those with a more negative
view (Levy, Slade, & Kasl, 2002; Wurm, Tesch-Romer, & Tomasik, 2007). Moreover,
a PVA has repeatedly been shown to be an important determinant for longevity (e.g.
Levy & Myers, 2005). The underlying mechanisms that make a PVA a health protective
factor have barely been empirically examined. However, one recent study indicates
that a PVA may in fact contribute substantially to general preventive health behaviour

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Psychology and Health


(Levy & Myers, 2004), and therefore suggests that analysing this association with respect
to physical exercise is worthwhile.
In the present study, a PVA refers to the view that ageing is accompanied by further
developmental gains. A gain-related view on ageing cannot be taken for granted because
younger as well as older individuals tend to view ageing as accompanied by a decrease in
gains and an increase in losses (Heckhausen, Dixon, & Baltes, 1989). Regarding ageing as
accompanied by further gains implies that the personal future still has a positive meaning
and that a person continues to perceive an ample time frame in his or her life for setting
goals and making plans. Having goals and a positive future outlook might make it worth
engaging in health behaviour such as physical exercise because the pursuit of certain goals
(e.g. improving skills, caring for grandchildren) requires sufficiently good health. Thus,
people with a PVA are presumably more motivated to engage in preventive health
behaviour such as physical exercise because they experience that it is still worth doing
something for their own health.
By contrast, a less positive view on ageing, which includes a shorter subjective time
perspective and a stronger focus on the present, might prevent beneficial health behaviour
because the consequences of this behaviour lie behind the individually perceived time
horizon (Rakowski, 1986). It is known that, even in the case of young adults, a short-time
perspective focusing on the present is negatively associated with healthy behavioural
practices (Hall & Fong, 2003). For older people, whose lifetime is more limited, it is even
harder to maintain a strong positive future outlook and to believe in the future benefits of
positive health behaviour.
The present study investigates the importance of a PVA for physical activity in middle
and later adulthood. Are people who view their ageing in a positive way physically more
active than those with a less positive view on their ageing process? And does this
association still persist when the socio-demographic, socio-economic and psychological
variables important for physical exercise are controlled for in the analyses?
Ageing comes with increasing physical and social losses, and middle age seems to be the
turning point in the ratio of gains and losses (Baltes, Lindenberger, & Staudinger, 1998).
In line with this turning point, we included in the present study people as from midlife. The
analysis of both middle-aged and older adults goes beyond comparable previous studies on
physical activity in later adulthood that have primarily focused on people aged 60 or 65
years and above (e.g. Burton, Shapiro, & German, 1999; McAuley et al., 2003). Studies on
physical activity of older adults have often examined low to moderate-intensity physical
activity such as walking, stair climbing or housework (e.g. Newsom et al., 2004) and
therefore have allowed for the fact that the vast majority of older people do not engage in
sporting activity. Due to the broadening of the perspective to middle-aged adults in the
present study, we considered not only moderate exercise (i.e. walking) but sporting activity
as well. Walking ranks more among the light to moderate activities and can usually be
performed despite chronic diseases and disabilities (DiPietro, 2001). Sporting activities,
however, predominantly rank among moderate to vigorous activities and thus require a
sufficiently good state of health (cf. Blair et al., 1992). In the present study, we included
both walking and sporting activities as outcome variables in order to analyse a broad
range of physical activities. However, these two indicators probably have a different
validity for the different age groups. Walking may not be an adequate indicator for
strenuous physical activity in middle-aged adults and sporting activities are likely to
overburden the physical capacities of many in old age. In the following hypotheses we thus
expected more distinct results for middle-aged adults with regard to sporting activities and
for old-aged adults with regard to walking.


S. Wurm et al.

Generally, we expected that a PVA would contribute to overcoming motivational

barriers to physical activity. More specifically, we hypothesised on a cross-sectional level
of analysis that a PVA would be related to higher physical activity (Hypothesis 1). Based
on the fact that physical activity declines with increasing age, we hypothesised on a
longitudinal level of analysis that a PVA would prevent a strong decrease in physical
activity; that is, we expected individuals with a more PVA to have a lower decrease in their
physical activity over time (Hypothesis 2). Finally, we expected a PVA to contribute
particularly to a lower decrease or even stability of physical activity should individual
health status so allow. For the cross-sectional and the longitudinal model, we therefore
additionally tested whether health serves as a moderator of a PVA in the prediction of
physical activity (Hypothesis 3).

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Participants and procedure
The analyses were based on data of the German Ageing Survey. This survey is an
ongoing nationwide and population-based study on middle-aged and older adults
(cf. Engstler & Wurm, 2006). First, the baseline sample (age 40 to 85 years) was drawn in
1996 by means of a national probability sampling technique with stratified sampling by
age, gender, and place of residence (Eastern or Western Germany). About 50% of the
persons contacted agreed to an interview (N 4838) and 83.4% of them additionally
completed a questionnaire (N 4034). The response rate corresponds to that of other
large survey studies in Germany (Neller, 2005). In the present study we used data
assessed within the questionnaire, which is why we only refer to the sample of N 4034.
This baseline sample was on average 60.1 years old, 49% (n 2065) of whom were
women and 66% (n 2668) lived in Western Germany. Detailed sample characteristics
are shown in Table 1, broken down in the groups of middle-aged (4064 years) and older
adults (6585 years). The age limits correspond to a common distinction between middle
adulthood and third age (e.g. Schaie & Willis, 2002) and, furthermore, reflects the legal
transition age into retirement. All analyses were computed for both age groups
separately because middle-aged and older adults differ considerably in their physical
activity. According to the baseline sample (N 4034), middle-aged adults reported
higher sporting activity (t(4032) 11.86, p50.001) and lower frequency of walking
(t(4032) 8.56, p50.001) than older adults.
Second, in 1996 the participants of the baseline sample were asked whether they were
willing in principle to participate again at a later point of time and 61% (N 2972) agreed
to this. The addresses of the other participants were deleted in accordance with the
regulations of the German data protection law. Six years after the first interview, 16.3% of
the 2972 respondents had died or moved to unknown addresses, which reduced the sample
that could be contacted for a second time to N 2478. A total of 63.8% of persons from
this reduced sample were in fact re-interviewed, while 36.2% refused (due to illness, or
without giving any reason). Considering again only those people who completed both
interview and questionnaire, the longitudinal sample consisted of N 1286 participants.
Compared to the baseline sample, the longitudinal sample was about 3 years younger
(MAgeT1 57.07; SD 10.81), but hardly differed in gender (52% male; n 675) and the
place of residence (63% from Western Germany; n 816).
Independent sample t-tests were computed to assess the differences in the baseline
scores between participants of the longitudinal sample and those who dropped out after


Psychology and Health

Table 1. Sample characteristics: percent or means and standard deviations (in brackets).

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Baseline sample (N 4034)

Age (years)
Western Germany
Income (EUR)
Living with partner
Physical health
Sports T1
Sports T2
Walking T1
Walking T2

Longitudinal sample (N 1286)

(4064 years;
n 2544)

Older adults
(6585 years;
n 1490)

(4064 years;
n 956)

Older adults
(6585 years;
n 330)

52.2 (7.10)
1.58 (0.74)
1302.02 (752.87)
46.78 (11.75)
7.92 (1.68)
0.66 (0.61)
1.11 (0.99)
1.78 (1.67)

3.01 (1.52)

72.55 (5.85)
1.32 (0.63)
1140.52 (677.68)
44.40 (11.21)
6.61 (1.96)
0.18 (0.72)
0.95 (1.08)
1.13 (1.70)

3.48 (1.73)

51.98 (6.98)
1.70 (0.78)
1363.94 (754.30)
48.74 (11.86)
7.96 (1.63)
0.08 (0.56)
0.01 (0.95)
2.00 (1.70)
1.98 (1.72)
2.99 (1.51)
3.16 (1.59)

71.80 (4.72)
1.48 (0.70)
1251.51 (620.39)
47.78 (11.89)
6.88 (1.93)
0.23 (0.67)
0.02 (0.97)
1.47 (1.74)
1.39 (1.81)
3.62 (1.64)
3.28 (1.72)

Notes: All data refer to the first wave of the survey (T1) unless otherwise noted. Education: 1 low,
3 high. Prestige: 18.1 low, 78.9 high. Physical Health: 0 low, 10 high; see section
Positive View on Ageing; bLatent variable scores.

the first interview. Both groups differed significantly (p50.01) in all variables described
in Table 1, except for gender, place of residence and frequency of walking. On average,
follow-up participants had higher socio-economic status (education, income, prestige),
more often a partner, and rated their health better. Moreover, follow-up participants
had significantly higher optimism (hope), a more PVA and higher sporting activity. As
can be seen in Table 1, the selective attrition applies more to the older adult group than
to middle-aged adults. This reflects the established fact of selective attrition in
longitudinal research on ageing (e.g. Baltes, Schaie, & Nardi, 1971; Norris, 1985). We
get back to the implications of sample selectivity in the discussion section.

Physical exercise
Participants were asked for their frequency of walking and doing sports (How often do
you go for walks?; How often do you do sports, i.e. hiking, football, callisthenics or
swimming?). Both questions could be answered on a 6-point scale ranging from never to
daily. The two variables on physical exercise were the only variables assessed at two
measurement occasions while all other variables pertain to the first measurement occasion
only (cf. Table 1).
Positive view on ageing (PVA)
In order to assess a PVA we used a scale on the ageing-related cognition of ongoing
development; this scale has been shown to be important for physical health over time


S. Wurm et al.

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(Wurm et al., 2007). The scale refers to the view of ageing as a time of personal growth and
development and was assessed by the four items Ageing means to me that I continue to
make plans, Ageing means to me that my capabilities are increasing, Ageing means to
me that I can still learn new things, and Ageing means to me that I can still put my ideas
into practice. Item wordings and scale development originate from Dittmann-Kohli and
her colleagues (e.g. Steverink, Westerhof, Bode, & Dittmann-Kohli, 2001). Participants
could endorse the items on a 4-point scale ranging from definitely false to definitely true.
In the present study, the scale itself was obtained by calculating the latent variable score
from a congeneric measurement model with two error terms allowed to correlate. This
model fitted the data very well both at baseline (2(1) 1.96, p 0.16, RMSEA 0.015,
NNFI 1.00, SRMR 0.003) and the longitudinal sample (2(1) 0.92, p 0.34,
RMSEA 0.000, NNFI 1.00, SRMR 0.004). In the baseline sample, the factor
loadings ranged between 0.52 and 0.78 (longitudinal sample: 0.430.77) resulting in a
reliability of  0.74 (longitudinal sample:  0.67) according to Raykov (2004).

Physical health
Respondents reported whether they had any of the 11 health problems in question (e.g.
cardiovascular diseases, circulatory problems, back or joint diseases, diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, respiratory diseases). For each person we counted a sum score based on
the absolute number of reported illnesses. We recoded this score subsequently so that a
high score means a low morbidity and scores near to zero mean that a person has a high
number of coexistent diseases (multimorbidity). The sum score was chosen due to the lack
of medical checkups and to various advantages compared to single self-reported illnesses.
Katz and colleagues (Katz, Chang, Sangha, Fossel, & Bates, 1996) have shown that the
best accordance between medical reports and self-reports are achieved when summary
scores are used. Moreover, global scores of self-reported illnesses are considered as better
proxies for (at least some) functional disability compared to single illnesses (Neugarten,
1996). Due to the large age range of the sample (4085 years) we did not use an indicator
that directly assesses functional disability because the vast majority of persons reported no
general functional limitation.

The Dispositional Hope Scale (8 items; Snyder et al., 1991) was used to assess functional
optimism and served as a control variable in the following analyses. According to Snyder
and colleagues, hope is fuelled by the expectation of successful outcomes (agency facet;
e.g. I energetically pursue my goals) and self-efficacy (pathways facet; e.g. I can think of
many ways to get out of a jam). The items could be answered on a 4-point scale ranging
from definitely false to definitively true. A latent measurement model was set up in
order to compute the latent variable scores (baseline: 2 (2) 11.83, p 0.003,
RMSEA 0.035, NNFI 1.00, SRMR 0.006; longitudinal sample: 2 (2) 0.91,
p 0.63, RMSEA 0.000, NNFI 1.00, SRMR 0.003). Scale reliability was computed
according to Raykov (2004) and was found to be satisfactory in the baseline ( 0.87),
and longitudinal sample ( 0.86). The Hope scale was correlated with PVA to a medium
extent (r 0.53 in the baseline sample and r 0.46 in the longitudinal sample; cf. Table 2),
which makes it a strong control variable.

Physical health
Place of residence


















Notes: Values for the baseline sample are below the diagonal; values for the longitudinal sample are above the diagonal.
PVA positive view on aging. *p50.05; **p50.01.


Table 2. Correlations among the indicators for the baseline sample (N 4034) and longitudinal sample (N 1286).

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Psychology and Health



S. Wurm et al.

Socio-demographic characteristics (SDC)

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Besides the Hope scale, socio-demographic indicators were also considered as control
variables to allow for the above mentioned impact of SDC on physical exercise. These are
variables on gender, living arrangement (with or without partner), place of residence
(Eastern or Western Germany), and level of education (1 low education, at most 9 years
school education, 2 medium education, secondary school, 3 high education, qualifying
for university admission). Additionally, we considered the equivalent household income
(a scale of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, on net
household income, weighted by the number of people sharing the household, cf. Piachaud,
1992) and a measure of occupational prestige (Treiman, 1977) that ranges from 18.1 (e.g.
sub workers) to 78.9 (e.g. physicians).

Finally, we also included chronological age (in years) as control variable to consider
additionally the close relation between physical exercise and age.

Data analysis
Pearson product moment correlations were used to examine the interrelationship between
the study variables (Table 2). Descriptive data analysis and data screening revealed
significant skewness for physical activity of older adults; to exemplify, 63.2% of
participants aged 65 to 85 reported never doing sports while 39.3% of this age group
reported walking daily in the baseline sample. We, therefore, transformed both variables
for sports and walking logarithmically (loge transformation) which yielded a more
satisfactory distribution. Single missing values of the longitudinal as well as the baseline
sample were supplemented by data imputation with expectation maximization method,
which offers the advantage that there will be no systematic losses of participants who
missed single items (Dempster, Laird, & Rubin, 1977).
We analysed the data with LISREL 8.5 (Joreskog & Sorbom, 1996) as our computer
programme; maximum likelihood was used as estimation method. First, we computed latent
variable scores and scale reliabilities reported above with structural equation modelling
(SEM). This approach offers the possibility of accounting for measurement errors in the
manifest indicators (observed measures) and testing the assumed measurement model
empirically. Subsequently, we computed path models using the latent variable scores to
predict physical exercise (i.e. walking or sports) both without and with adjustment for the
control variables health, hope, socio-demographic characteristics (gender, living arrangement, place of residence, level of education, income, prestige) and, age. The longitudinal
analyses, with physical exercise at Time 2 as dependent variable, were additionally adjusted
for physical exercise at Time 1. We preferred path analyses using latent variable scores to
SEM because of the known theoretical and practical limitations of SEM with non-linear or
interaction effects (Bollen, 1989). In particular, significance tests and model fit statistics are
considered inappropriate for models involving interaction terms (Hu, Bentler, & Kano,
1992). Simulation studies show that this problem mainly occurs when the number of
manifest indicators is four or less (Jaccard & Wan, 1995), as was the case in the present
study. For the path models, the goodness of fit statistics are not described because the fit is


Psychology and Health

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Cross-sectional analyses
The cross-sectional analyses investigated the question of whether a PVA is associated with
more regular physical exercise (Hypothesis 1). The results are summarised in Table 3. In
line with the hypotheses, the models on the sporting activity of middle-aged and older
adults showed that a PVA significantly predicted the frequency of doing sports both for
middle-aged ( MA 0.14) and older adults ( OA 0.20, ps50.001). These findings
remained significant after adjusting the control variables health, hope, six sociodemographic variables and age ( MA 0.08; OA 0.12; ps50.01). Hence, people with a
more PVA do sports more frequently than those with a less PVA. We additionally
computed a multi-group model to analyse whether PVA differs in its impact on
sporting activity between middle-aged and older adults; this turned out not to be the case
(2 (1) 0.40, p 0.54).
Next, we computed the same path model but predicted walking instead of sporting
activity. As expected, for middle-aged adults, PVA was only slightly associated with
more frequent walking ( MA 0.04, p50.05; cf. Table 3), and became non-significant
after adjusting the analysis for all control variables ( MA 0.03, p 0.17). By contrast,
PVA was associated with more frequent walking in older adults ( OA 0.15, p50.001;
cf. Table 3), even after the adjustment of all control variables ( OA 0.11, p50.01),
which was also in line with the hypothesis. Again, we additionally computed a multigroup model to analyse whether both age groups differ significantly from each other.
In fact, PVA showed a significantly higher impact on walking for older adults than for
middle-aged adults (2 (1) 3.53, p50.05, one-tailed). Together, these results
corroborated our first hypothesis that PVA would be significantly related to sporting
activity among middle-aged adults as well as to doing sports and walking among older

Table 3. Prediction of sports and walking at time 1 by PVA in unadjusted models and covariateadjusted models.a


Predictors at baseline






Model 1: Unadjusted
Positive view on ageing 0.14***


Model 2: Health
Positive view on ageing 0.13***



Model 3: Hope
Positive view on ageing 0.15***



Model 5: Age
Positive view on ageing 0.08**



Note: aBaseline sample, N 4034; *p50.05; **p50.01; ***p50.001.






Model 4: SES
Positive view on ageing 0.09***






S. Wurm et al.

Table 4. Prediction of sports and walking at time 2 by PVA in unadjusted models and covariateadjusted models.a
Predictors at baseline




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Model 1: Adjusted for physical

Activity T1 (sports/walking) 0.05
Positive view on ageing
Model 2: Health
Positive view on ageing



Model 3: Hope
Positive view on ageing


Model 4: SES
Positive view on ageing


Model 5: Age
Positive view on ageing



























Note: aLongitudinal sample, N 1286; *p50.05; **p50.01; ***p50.001.

Longitudinal analyses
By means of the longitudinal sample we subsequently examined whether PVA can predict
an increase in physical exercise over time (Hypothesis 2). For this, we performed the same
path models as before, except that we used physical exercise at T2 as dependent variable
while controlling for physical exercise at T1. The temporal stability for doing sports for
middle-aged adults and walking for older adults was of medium extent (rsports T1T2 0.44,
rwalking T1T2 0.34; ps50.001). Contrary to our hypothesis, PVA could not predict a
lower decrease in sporting activity either for middle-aged adults ( MA 0.05, p 0.07) or
for older adults ( OA 0.08, p 0.12; cf. Table 4); the additional multi-group model did
not show significant differences in this association between the age groups (2 (1) 0.07,
p 0.79).
As expected and in line with the findings for the cross-sectional model, PVA could
predict a lower decrease in walking for older adults ( OA 0.11, p50.05; adjusted for all
control variables: OA 0.19, p50.01), but not for middle-aged adults ( MA 0.00,
p 0.92). Here, the age groups differed significantly in the multi-group model
(2 (1) 6.85, p50.01).

Moderator analyses
Finally we explored whether health serves as a moderator in the relation between PVA and
physical activity, i.e. sporting activity in middle-aged adults as well as sporting activity and
walking in older adults (Hypothesis 3). For this, we computed the same path models as
before, but this time we added the PVA  health interaction in each model.
We first added this interaction term in the cross-sectional analyses. In contrast to
our expectations, the interaction term was not significant for doing sports, either for


Psychology and Health

Predicted value walking T1 (log)


Older adults (65 85 years)

Good health
Bad health




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Low positive

View on aging

High positive

Figure 1. Cross-sectional interaction effect of a PVA  health on walking in older adults (database:
baseline sample). Note: The figure depicts the values for the frequency of walking at T1 as predicted
by a PVA, health and the interaction between a PVA and health. Both a positive view on ageing (low
vs. high) and health (good vs. bad) were separated by median split for reasons of visual clarity.

middle-aged ( MA 0.10, p 0.33) or for older adults ( OA 0.07, p 0.44). As

expected, the PVA  health interaction turned out to be significant for the frequency of
walking for older adults ( OA 0.19, p50.05; adjusted for all control variables:
OA 0.20, p50.05). The direction of this interaction effect was, however, unexpected.
Figure 1 reveals that older people with a more PVA are more likely to walk regularly when
they are in worse health. By contrast, people with a less PVA not only tend to be less active
in general, but also walk most rarely when they additionally have worse health.
Second, we additionally tested the interaction term of PVA  health in the
longitudinal model. Following our hypothesis, we again expected a significant
interaction for decreases in sporting activity for both middle-aged and older adults
and in walking for older adults. As expected, the interaction effect was significant for
decreases in sporting activity for middle-aged adults ( MA 0.31, p50.05; adjusted for
all control variables: MA 0.31, p50.05); for older adults, the PVA  health
interaction could not predict a lower decrease in sporting activities which is probably
due to the overall high sporting inactivity of older adults ( OA 0.18, p 0.31). The
significant interaction for middle-aged adults is illustrated in Figure 2. The figure
reveals that those people who have good health and additionally high PVA do not only
have a lower decrease in sporting activity but even an increase over time. In contrast,
middle-aged adults with good health but a less positive view on ageing, maintain their
low level of physical exercise. Individuals with bad health reduce their physical activity,
regardless of their view on ageing.

The present study provides evidence that a PVA may in fact contribute to a higher level of
physical exercise. This finding is in line with a previous study on general health behaviour
(Levy & Myers, 2004). To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the
importance of PVA for physical exercise. Moreover, the study considered not only older
adults but middle-aged adults as well. Thus we could analyse whether PVA is already


S. Wurm et al.
Middle-aged adults (40 64 years)

Sport T1 (log), predicted

value sport T2 (log)

Good health, high


Bad health, high PVA


Bad health, low PVA



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Good health, low


Time 1

Time 2

Figure 2. Longitudinal interaction effect of a PVA  health on changes of sporting activity in

middle-aged adults (database: longitudinal sample). Note: The figure depicts the values for the
frequency of doing sports at T2 as predicted by overall mean frequency of sporting activity at T1,
a PVA, health and the interaction between a PVA and health. Both a PVA (low vs. high) and health
(good vs. bad) were separated by median split for reasons of visual clarity.

important for physical exercise at the beginning of a time in which people become more
aware of their own ageing (Whitbourne, 2001), which was in fact the case.
The complementary analyses on doing sports and walking suggest that PVA may
counteract motivational barriers against physical exercise (Schutzer & Graves, 2004). PVA
was not related to walking in middle-aged adults. This was in line with the hypothesis that
the motivational barrier against walking would be rather low in middle adulthood because
functional disabilities which impede walking are not very common at this age. However,
middle-aged adults with high PVA not only did sports more frequently (cross-sectional
level), they even increased their sporting activity provided that they were healthy enough
to do so (longitudinal level). Thus, a PVA emerged as important for physical activities with
higher energy expenditure; these are highly recommended in midlife to promote weight
regulation and cardiovascular health. While middle-aged adults with high PVA and good
health increased their sporting activity over time, those with worse health reduced this
activity independent of their view on ageing (cf. Figure 2). This finding could reflect the
uncertainty of individuals with health problems about whether (and how much) physical
activity is still beneficial in the light of their diseases.
Risk factors such as a sedentary lifestyle are often difficult to change and changes are
moderate even in patients who have enrolled in psychoeducational programmes
(e.g. Dusseldorp, van Elderen, Maes, Meilman, & Kraaij, 1999). In contrast to healthy
individuals who decide to change their behaviour, patients are told to change their
sedentary lifestyle but may not be convinced of the need (Johnston, 1999). The present
findings suggest that attitudes towards health behaviour change differ between individuals
with a more or less positive view on ageing. Individuals with a more PVA not only have
higher functional optimism (cf. Table 2), they additionally have further plans and goals for
the future. These might make it worth engaging in health behaviour because the pursuit of
goals (e.g. travelling, hobbies, caring for grandchildren) requires sufficiently good health.
This is in line with studies on the importance of hoped-for selves on health behaviour

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(e.g. Hooker & Kaus, 1992; Oullette, Hessling, Gibbons, Reis-Bergan, & Gerrard, 2005).
In the light of their impact on motivation towards health behaviour change, conceptions
and misconceptions about ageing should be considered in the context of rehabilitation and
intervention programmes.
Also in line with our hypotheses was the finding that for older adults, PVA was
associated with higher physical activity, that is, doing sports and walking (cross-sectional
level). It was a remarkable result that even those older people with worse health walked
just as regularly as those with good health, provided that they had a PVA (cf. Figure 1).
This finding exceeded our expectations and emphasises the importance of a positive view
on ageing. Regular walking is often still recommended in spite of health problems,
ailments or frailty. This means, it is normally a more adaptive behaviour than a sedentary
lifestyle, even for ill or frail older people (Landi et al., 2004; WHO, 1997). Moreover, PVA
could predict an increase in the frequency of walking (longitudinal level). Hence, for older
adults, PVA was particularly associated with more regular walking. Moderate activities
such as walking are often considered to have top priority for older adults because they
promote functional ability and are even possible in cases of chronic disease and disabilities
(DiPietro, 2001). Taken together, the findings for middle-aged and older adults in the
present study support the assumption that PVA contributes to physical exercise in later
The findings can be incorporated in the larger theoretical context of self-regulation
which places special emphasis on the importance of optimism and goal setting (e.g. De
Ridder & De Wit, 2006). Studies on optimism have repeatedly shown that people with a
more favourable expectation about the future have more beneficial health behaviour, and
are able to adapt better to negative conditions (e.g. Aspinwall, Richter, & Hoffman, 2001;
Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, & Gruenewald, 2000). However, favourable beliefs about
the future do not necessarily imply that people have gain-related goals. An optimistic view
of the future may also mean that a person is confident of maintaining his or her skills or
social relationships, or that a person is confident of successfully coping with losses.
Moreover, the present study did not focus on health goals but rather on the expectation
that ageing is accompanied by further development.
Thus, the finding is striking that such a PVA could predict physical exercise even if the
analyses were controlled for hope, that is, for functional optimism. This reveals that a
PVA cannot be equated with optimism and emphasises that gain-related goals continue to
be important up to old age. We have to keep in mind that the striving for personal
development mainly characterises the goal orientation of younger adults, while already
from middle adulthood there is a motivational shift toward conservation and lossprevention (Heckhausen, 1997). Substantial reasons for this shift are the age-related
increase in physical and social losses and the shorter future time perspective (Carstensen,
Issacowitz, & Charles, 1999), but also the fact that older adults are more likely to have
already achieved their personal goals than younger adults. Hence the finding that a PVA
can motivate older people to physical exercise suggests that it remains important up to old
age to see the gains in life regardless of the age-related shift from striving for gains to
balancing losses.

We would like to point to some limitations concerning the generalisation of the present
study. First, all data used here are based on self-reports and thus might be biased. It would

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S. Wurm et al.

be preferable to have additional data about physical exercise, although there is evidence
for the validity of self-reports on physical activity (Miller, Freedson, & Kline, 1994).
Second, sporting activity and walking were measured with single-item questions only.
Several studies point to a sufficient validity of single-item measures of physical activity
(e.g. Schechtman, Bazlai, Rost, & Fisher, 1991); however, the reliability of these measures
cannot be estimated and thus is questionable. Moreover, the present study used only a
short-term recall for the frequency of physical exercise. However, it has been shown that
the regularity of physical exercise is more important (Pate et al., 1995) and easier to
promote (Schwarzer, 2004) than the intensity. Finally, it would have been desirable to have
additional medical data; but self-reported health indicators turned out to conform to a
great extent with the health status evaluated by a physician (Bush, Miller, Golden & Hale,
1989; Kehoe, Wu, Leske, & Chylack, 1994).
A second limitation refers to the sample attrition of the longitudinal sample. Compared
to the original population-based survey, the longitudinal sample was selected in favour of
healthier and better-educated people who exercised more often (cf. Method section). Even
though we cannot rule out the possibility that the longitudinal findings are in part due to
the biased sample, two findings suggest that the findings can be generalised. First, the
present study has shown converging findings for the original survey sample and the
longitudinal sample which consistently point to the impact of a PVA on physical exercise
in later adulthood. Second, several ageing studies have examined the question of how
much the findings differ between a selected longitudinal sample and the corresponding
original baseline sample with estimated follow-up data for those people who dropped out
(Kempen & van Sonderen, 2002; Wurm, et al., 2007). These studies also report converging
findings between the different samples, and suggest that attrition not always seems a
serious problem when associations between variables (and not descriptive outcomes) are in
the focus.
Finally, the variance explained in the regression models at baseline and follow-up was
relatively small. This could qualify the importance of a PVA for physical activity. First of
all, however, one should consider the 6-year period between baseline and follow-up. Any
changes in physical activity predicted by a PVA are, therefore, probably sustainable so
that cumulative benefits are very likely. Most importantly, we should bear in mind that the
small effects in physical activity as predicted by a PVA might be sufficient to cause a
substantial improvement in physical health. Numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of
even small increases in physical activity for health and longevity (Myers, et al., 2002; Pate
et al., 1995). Based on recent studies, Warburton, Nicol and Bredin (2006, p. 801) therefore
conclude that . . . an increase in energy expenditure from physical activity of 1000 kcal
(4200 kJ) or an increase in physical fitness of 1 MET (metabolic equivalent) per week was
associated with a mortality benefit of about 20%. The effect of physical activity is graded,
that is, even small improvements in physical activity are associated with a significant risk
reduction. For example, an intervention study for patients with diabetes showed that
patients who walked at least 2 h a week had a 39% lower mortality rate compared with
inactive individuals (Gregg, Gerzoff, Caspersen, Williamson, & Narayan, 2003). These
findings show that even small effects can result in important health benefits.
Conclusions and future directions
Besides these limitations, further aspects should be addressed in future studies.
One issue concerns the number of and the time interval between follow-up surveys.
While intervention studies are often limited to a short follow-up period of less than half a

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year, the present study referred to a time interval of 6 years. The fact that a PVA predicted
physical exercise over this long time interval is remarkable. But in future studies it would
be desirable to have more information about physical activity at more regular intervals.
This would also allow testing physical exercise as mediator between PVA and health.
Concerning the contribution of a PVA on health behaviour, future studies should also
extend their focus additionally to other health behaviour such as the use of preventive
medical checkups. The enhancement of health by physical exercise implies a value placed
on prospective gains, while illness-detection implies a value placed in avoiding losses
(Bailis, Fleming, & Segall, 2005). It has been shown that subjective risk factors cannot
predict physical exercise (Schwarzer, 2004). But for medical checkups and other health
behaviour aimed at averting losses, perceiving potential risks could be more beneficial than
having a positive view on ageing; an optimistically biased risk perception could prevent
this kind of health behaviour, which is also termed as defensive optimism (Schwarzer,
1994). The question of whether a PVA also promotes other aspects of a healthy lifestyle
should therefore be examined in future studies. But at least with regard to physical exercise
interventions and related public health programmes, it seems to be worthwhile to consider
a PVA as an additional motivator. In this context we have to keep in mind that such a
positive view cannot be taken for granted, not only because of the age-related losses but
also due to prevailing ageism and age stereotypes.

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