Maria Elaine Damewood1, Savannah Faith Clark1, Ashley L. Artese2. 1Roanoke College, Salem, VA. 2Duke University, Durham, NC.

BACKGROUND: To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the state of Virginia issued a stay-at-home order and required closure of fitness centers from March 24th to June 5th, 2020. It is not known how these closures affected physical activity (PA) in older adults who regularly participated in the fitness centers’ supervised exercise programs. In addition, more research is needed to determine older adults’ motivations for returning to these programs when centers reopened. PURPOSE: The purpose of this study was to: (1) investigate the effects of fitness center closures on PA in older adults who participate in supervised exercise classes; (2) explore older adults’ motivations for returning to classes when centers reopened despite the COVID-19 risks. METHODS: Older adults participating in water-based exercise classes were recruited 4.5 months after fitness centers reopened. Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews relating to PA changes during the stay-at-home order and motivations for returning to classes. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed via first and second cycle coding to identify emergent themes. RESULTS: Eleven older adults (69 ± 7 years) completed the interviews. Pre-pandemic class attendance was 4.6 ± 1.4 times/week. Ten participants (90.9%) engaged in PA during the stay-at-home order with 4 participants reporting maintenance or increased PA compared to pre-pandemic levels. Three themes were identified regarding PA participation: Recognizing the value of PA, preparation for independent exercise, and adaptation to circumstances. Following the reopening of fitness centers, participants attended 3.5 ± 1.2 classes/week. Three themes emerged regarding the choice to return: Increased exercise motivation, health benefits from classes, and benefits outweighing risks of COVID-19. CONCLUSIONS: Findings suggest that prior exercise class participation positively influenced older adults’ engagement in PA during the stay-at-home order. While most participants did not maintain pre-pandemic PA levels, they remained active because they recognized the benefits of PA, were prepared to independently exercise due to prior experience, and found PA alternatives to adapt to the circumstances. Despite COVID-19 risks, benefits specific to exercise classes motivated participants to return when centers opened. This highlights the role of supervised group exercise in promoting health benefits and PA adherence in older adults. FUNDING INFORMATION: This research was supported by the Roanoke College Pathways Program.

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