Ageing & Exercise
: a case study to explore perceptions of ageing and engagement with exercise

  • Sue Stuart

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This study concerns the lived experience of participants in 50+ exercise groups (mainly women) that are taught by the researcher who is herself 50+. Activities comprise Exercise to Music, Pilates and Tai Chi for Arthritis and most classes are run under the auspices of an Adult Learning scheme. The research explores the meanings which people attach to the processes of ageing and how these relate to their engagements with exercise. The work was stimulated by a desire to understand the factors that encourage the participants to engage in and adhere to exercise and, in so doing, to make useful recommendations for health promotion and service provision with the intention that others might avoid the dangers of sedentary behaviour.

This ethnographic case study spans approximately four years beginning in the spring of 2013. It draws on data collected in five semi-structured interviews and ten focus groups that were recorded and transcribed and five shorter telephone interviews which were noted at the time. Also included are data from numerous short vox pops and interviews ‘on the move’. Altogether 56 individuals contributed verbal comment that has been recorded in some way. The data are reinforced by participant observation and access to enrolment documents. All of this is supported by a field journal which creates an audit trail and traces the evolution of the study.

The originality of the study lies in the ability of the researcher to open up the ‘black box’ of the exercise class to reveal what matters most to older adults when they engage in exercise and how the contents of the box are socially constructed. Drawing on her own life experience as an exerciser and as an educator, the researcher is in a unique position to relate to the participants both as a peer and as a professional.

The study situates perceptions of ageing in the context of identity formation. It explores elements across the life course which have shaped those perceptions and how such perceptions intersect with values and beliefs about exercise and, furthermore, how they continue to do so. Through unpacking the ‘black box’ of the exercise class, findings demonstrate the existence of a ‘package’ of elements that individuals require in their exercise: some essential, others desirable and yet others totally unacceptable. Factors which are considered essential vary with the choice of exercise but there remains an overwhelming sense of agreement that whatever is chosen should be pleasurable and co-constructed in partnership with other people. How this occurs forms the major contribution to knowledge which may be valuable in its application to provision, instructor recruitment and training for older adult exercise classes. Though the knowledge arises specifically from the participants of this case study it has relevance in informing exercise provision for similar groups of people.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Coventry University
  • Buckinghamshire New University
SupervisorBarbara Humberstone (Supervisor)

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