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01.12.2015 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2015 Open Access

BMC Public Health 1/2015

Why few older adults participate in complex motor skills: a qualitative study of older adults’ perceptions of difficulty and challenge

BMC Public Health > Ausgabe 1/2015
Katarina P. Kraft, Kylie A. Steel, Freya Macmillan, Rebecca Olson, Dafna Merom
Wichtige Hinweise
Katarina P. Kraft and Dafna Merom contributed equally to this work.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

DM conceptualised the study. DM, KS and KK were involved with the original design of the study. KK directed the qualitative research, recruited participants, conducted the focus groups, drafted the interpretation of findings and had primary responsibility of writing the first draft of the manuscript. All authors were involved in the facilitation and analysis stages, contributed to editing the paper and approved the final version of the manuscript.



Maintaining neuromotor fitness across the life course is imperative. It can reduce falls in older individuals and improve/maintain physical and cognitive functioning. Complex motor skills (CMS) are involved in many physical activities (e.g., ball games, dance), which can improve neuromotor fitness. However, few older adults participate in CMS. This study aimed to understand how older adults perceive the degree of difficulty and challenge, using Gentile’s taxonomy of motor skills as a framework.


Six focus groups (FGs) were conducted with older adults (aged 61–92 years; N = 36) using a semi-structured question guide, to explore older adults’ perceptions of difficulty and challenges associated with physical activity types. FGs were conducted in three villages and community groups in Sydney, Australia. Verbatim transcripts were coded inductively following a grounded theory approach to analysis to discover categories and concepts based on participants’ views.


Older adults perceived physical effort and pace as influencing difficulty where as challenging activities were not found to hinder older adults’ willingness to participate. Other challenges in performing activities were attributed to: skill level, environment conditions (e.g., pool versus ocean swimming) and variations influencing complexity. Social and interpersonal issues, such as embarrassment, rapport with instructors, prior experience/ familiarity, in addition to physical effort, were other central features of older adults’ perceptions of physical activities. Themes that appeared to increase the likelihood of participation in CMS were: age appropriate modification; enjoyment; social aspects; past experience; and having experienced instructors.


This study offers recommendations for increasing participation in CMS. Modifying activities to suit ability and age and increasing exposure during the life span may help maintain participation into old age. Gentile’s taxonomy provides an appropriate framework for classifying activities as simple or complex, which were recognised by participants on a descriptive level. Existing and new sports, which have been modified for old age, should be made available to older adults. Within the motor learning literature, the focus on older adults is limited. If activity complexity translates to improved cognitive abilities as well as improved individual neuromotor performance, the challenge of modifying activities to suit older adults’ preferences needs to be addressed.
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