Faculty Publication Spotlight: Christina Matz-Costa on Improving Activity in Older Adults

Christina Matz-Costa

Christina Matz-Costa

In the most recent installment of Innovate’s series highlighting research publications from faculty members at the Boston College School of Social Work, we focus on a pilot study from Assistant Professor Christina Matz-Costa that delves into the possibilities for developing individually-tailored programs to better serve the inactive older adults that need them.

The issue: As the workforce ages, and older adults find the period of post-retirement grow significantly, it is becoming increasingly critical to understand how to keep older adults physically active, engaged, and embedded in social networks and communities.

The idea: The Boston Roybal Center for Active Lifestyle Interventions is a consortium of five academic research institutions that was developed to address this very topic. Matz-Costa recently conducted a pilot intervention study with funding from the Center, the National Institute on Aging, and the Institute on Aging at Boston College to test the efficacy of an initiative she and colleagues developed called Engaged4Life, which was an individually-tailored program aimed at promoting this kind of active lifestyle in later life.

“Existing research has shown that it’s not only engagement in activity that matters, but it’s the quality of the engagement that makes a difference,” explains Matz-Costa, “and this could be particularly key when it comes to sustaining positive behavior change over the long term.” The Engaged4Life program focuses on enhancing four components of older adults’ activity:

  • Physical activity
  • Cognitive stimulation
  • Social interaction
  • Personal meaning of the prescribed program(s)

The recent study sought to understand the possible positive effects of a two-month long multicomponent intervention that included workshops on staying active and engaged, peer mentoring to encourage follow-through on desired behavior changes, and technology (fitbits and iPad Minis) to help the participants to measure their own level of success.

The findings: Specifically, the study found that those individuals in the intervention group (when compared with a control) experienced significant improvements in daily steps taken, daily sedentary activity, and end-of-the day fatigue. These improvements were maintained approximately one month after the intervention period concluded. Follow-up interviews suggest that the approach was feasible and acceptable to participants. The project did not find statistically significant improvements for the other outcomes studied, including daily cognitive activity, social interaction, or perceived personal meaning of activities. However, this is likely due to the individually-tailored nature of the intervention, says Matz-Costa, as it allowed participants to choose the particular activities that they preferred to engage with.

The next steps: Matz-Costa says the group plans to assess the feasibility of a larger scale study to more holistically understand the opportunities for similar multicomponent interventions. In addition, colleagues within the Roybal Center have already begun sharing similar results around mentoring and the role that peers can play in positively altering behaviors. The hope is that the Center can perfect such interventions, towards developing the best programmatic offerings possible into the future. Matz-Costa is also in the planning stages of tweaking these interventions for specific groups of older adults who may be prone to neglecting their own health, such as caregivers for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

The takeaway: “In short, a generic approach to introducing physical activity into the lives of older adults is often ineffective,” says Matz-Costa. “But there exist real opportunities for developing individual tailored interventions to make a real positive difference in quality of life during our later years.”

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