Group of senior participate in walking study

NEWS // May 25, 2016

Study Uses Peer Coaches to Improve Physical Activity of Older Adults

Older adults are the least active segment of society, with only 3% meeting current physical activity recommendations. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) are working with senior and community centers throughout San Diego County to help change this statistic. Through a 2-year study called the Peer Empowerment Program for Physical Activity (PEP4PA), funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), UCSD is encouraging older adults to reach recommended physical activity guidelines and experience the many associated health benefits. 

What is special about this program is that it is led by older adults themselves, with a focus on sustainability. UCSD trains and certifies older adults to be peer health coaches qualified to lead a multi-level walking program. Taking into account the many factors that affect activity levels, the program features both individual and group elements, including: group walks twice a week, weekly health tips, group sharing and individual health coaching. Participants are given pedometers and encouraged to increase their step count by 2,000 additional steps (about a mile) per day from their starting point. 

The program is designed for people of all walking abilities and focuses on helping participants make a lifelong change. Just a couple months into the program, participants are already reporting better sleep, less aches & pains, decreased blood pressure, improved muscle strength, improved mental state and increased energy. Participants have also mentioned how much they enjoy the social aspect of the program.

Additionally, the group is working with Circulate SD, to examine the environment around each senior and community center to identify possible barriers to safe walking. The peer health coaches then lead the group in advocating for meaningful changes to help improve walkability. The peer health coaches also work to enhance and sustain the program by engaging the larger community. Activities include seeking out local businesses to provide in-kind donations, involvement in local health initiatives, inviting elected officials to join walks so they can see firsthand what improvement could be made, taking part in intergenerational programs like Safe Routes to School, or seeking out grants to support the program in the long term.

The program supports both the Surgeon General’s 2015 Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities and the Building Better Health component of the Live Well San Diego vision.

This program is part of a research study sponsored by the NIH that aims to enroll 408 participants at 12 senior or community centers throughout the county. Half of the centers that enroll in the study receive the walking program and half are part of a comparison group that receives a series of talks on key health and wellness topics.  One participating site received a healthy cooking demonstration from the Olivewood Garden Kitchenistas of National City and another site received a healing foods talk by a registered dietician, Janice Shigehara.

If you are over 50 and interested in taking part in this study or if you work at a center serving adults over 50 and are interested in partnering, please contact Khalisa Bolling (858) 534-5726 or

Seniors Participate in Walking Study 1
Seniors Participate in Walking Study 2