New Zealand Chief of Army Writing Competition Finalist for the Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) Category June 2020

 

By Mrs. K. Carter

 

An aging population is projected globally, with an expected effect of an aging workforce. Understanding the predictive analytics of an aging population can enable planning actions in order to support and sustain our future force. Consideration of the psychological and physical health effects of aging is one area where early investment will be critical to ensure our people are set up for success.

This article aims to emphasise the effects of aging and its influence on self-efficacy considering the positive correlation between high self-efficacy and transformational leadership, which is highly relevant to the armed forces. It discusses the psychological trait of Mindset and how it can be used to encourage an active lifestyle to assist our people in better controlling their thoughts and feelings to improve self-efficacy and influence positive behaviour in any given situation.

By the year 2038 it is estimated that 1.3 million New Zealanders will be aged 65 and over with the medium age[2] rising to 46 by the year 2051[3]. One of the expected effects of an ageing population is an ageing workforce with an assumption that more people will want or need to work in their 60s and 70s, thus bringing an array of middle adulthood physical and psychological health issues into the workforce[4]. Health and fitness plays an integral part in sustaining the ageing workforce by reducing or delaying the onset of these issues[5] however considering societies current inactivity state adopting or maintaining an active lifestyle could be difficult as many appear to disregard well researched benefits. Rather than resisting the social changes that are occurring, in particular technological advances which are associated with increased inactivity[6] the use of the psychological trait of Mindset[7] to influence middle adulthood adopting and maintaining an active lifestyle in order to sustain an ageing workforce is explored[8]. The New Defence Force is not exempt from becoming an ageing workforce and as such examples from the New Zealand Army are discussed as well as their effects and how using the psychological trait of Mindset, underpinned by behavioural theories could assist its employees.

Berk[9] classifies middle adulthood as age 40-65 identifying key milestones in development that will inevitably cause health challenges to individuals and their workplace. Middle adulthood is when physical and cognitive ability begins to decline – eyesight and hearing deteriorates, hair thins and greys, skin loses elasticity, wrinkle lines appear and weight gain is experienced due to diminishing lean muscle and bone mass. Cognitively things start to slow down[10]. Experience is relied on as intelligence becomes more crystallised[11], the long-term memory begins to deteriorate and retention of information becomes limited. These are just some of the visible milestones of development experienced in middle adulthood. Other internal changes include, for women menstrual cycle irregularity and menopause, for men a decrease of semen and sperm and for both, the threat of increased risk of diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease[12]. Those in middle adulthood are consciously aware of their ageing and thus it is reasonable to accept a decline in self-efficacy[13], motivation and a susceptibility to depression[14].

Yoga Class at Linton Gymnasium for Wellness Promotion.

Fortunately the effects of ageing can be reduced or delayed through living an active lifestyle[15]. The benefits of an active lifestyle are well documented with some more widely known than others, such as cardiovascular and musculoskeletal benefits. Yet it is important that there is an awareness of all benefits such as decreased hypertension, rate of colon cancer, risk of type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, rate of bone loss, risk of falling and mental health issues[16]. Middle adulthood is an important age bracket to set healthier habits for later life, but this stage of life is generally the busiest and has the most barriers to physical activity. Research cites the three most common barriers as time, motivation and facilities[17]. It is believed that understanding these barriers is the first step towards developing effective interventions, such as using the psychological trait of Mindset to influence adopting and maintaining an active lifestyle in middle adulthood.

The right mindset is fundamental to overcoming barriers towards living an active lifestyle. Dweck[18] defines the psychological trait of Mindset as how we view ourselves and others around us, how we attribute success and failure and perceive setbacks and challenges. Adopting the right mindset towards the effects of ageing and any barriers is likely to improve self-efficacy successfully influencing the adoption or maintenance of an active lifestyle in middle adulthood[19].  Dweck[20] discovered there are two types of Mindset: growth and fixed. Fixed is defined as an ability or skill that is a fixed trait, whereas Growth is an ability or skill that can be learned and developed overtime with a focus on the process.

The New Zealand Army consists of employee’s aged broadly between 18-65. Despite unit physical training (PT) being compulsory 3-5 times per week the decline in attendance of those in middle adulthood is noticeable with a large majority preferring to either do their own individual PT in a preferred environment or avoid it entirely. By middle adulthood many uniformed employees have completed between 20 and 30 years of service, they have their set ways and there can be a reluctance for change. Some are wary about learning new things, as it could expose vulnerability. According to Dweck[21] this way of thinking is classified as a fixed mindset. It is likely that these individuals would be unwilling to learn about the ageing process or how an active-lifestyle could reduce or delay effects whereas those with a growth mindset would believe they could improve themselves responding well to learning, actively open to researching the ageing process and the benefits of an active lifestyle to reduce or delay it.

Those with a fixed mindset are likely to avoid any real effort[22].  An observation of this includes NZ Army uniformed personnel in middle adulthood that have a degree of job autonomy can easily choose continuing to work (likely sedentary at this seniority) over attending scheduled PT, or make a decision whether to attend based on what type of PT class it is. For example, some personnel would prefer a circuit over interval training. Many who struggle with PT have accepted that they will always struggle, and that no amount of PT will change the way they are.  This attitude aligns with Dweck’s[23] research suggesting a fixed mindset believes that nothing can change the way they were born, making goal setting and establishing exercise routines difficult, as the desired end state cannot be visualised. A growth mindset in this case would put PT as a priority, treating it as valuable time away from the immediate workplace with their troops, if they have them. They would understand the value in PT variety and seek out the more challenging sessions to experience the benefits associated. Those with a growth mindset would likely visualise an end goal, initiate a PT routine, measure progress along the way and bounce back from any setbacks or time spent away. Time spent away being arguably one of the biggest hindrances to PT routines for uniformed personnel.

Another trait of a fixed mindset is that a person will look to protect their successes to minimise the risk of failing[24]. The NZ Army has fitness tests that need to be passed once or twice a year depending on the grade achieved. In the build up to a fitness test enormous amounts of stress are observed, even for the fittest of individuals who are worried about failure or doing worse than their last test. Those in middle adulthood are usually in leadership positions and are likely concerned about reputational damage or judgement if seen to be last at PT, not achieving the top testing grade, or worst case, failing a fitness test. It is common to expect avoidance of PT and fitness testing for these reasons, affecting not only health but also future employment. A growth mindset would likely view fitness testing as a measure, a pass or fail towards achieving their goals. They would attempt the PT session or the test, setting a good example for others with the realisation that even if they are last, others would respect them for just being there.

Social comparison is of concern for those with a fixed mindset as visible signs of ageing make for a decline in self-efficacy[25]. It is not uncommon for some NZ Army employees in middle adulthood to experience some weight gain, exacerbated by stress and injury. Weight gain can cause a decline in confidence and a reluctance to attend PT due to poor self-image, worries of falling behind in the class and what perceptions others may have of them. Individual health and well-being can rapidly deteriorate as a result of a decline in physical conditioning and a higher susceptibility to injury. Fitness testing is controversial as it plays a big part in whether a uniformed employee’s career is progressed or extended and determines whether they can deploy on operations. Only one out of three fitness tests in the NZ Army is scaled to age. Although slightly outside the scope of this article its pertinent to mention Weapon testing, also observed as being difficult for those in middle adulthood, with testing unable to cater for any degrading of the eyesight nor equipment and system design supportive of any decline in motor skills. Failing or not performing in these tests amongst troops can be very demoralising. With a growth mindset it is likely soldiers would have higher self-efficacy and would not worry as much about social comparison, being more motivated to get out amongst the troops despite any visual side effects of ageing[26]. A growth mindset could also help with fitness and weapon testing with soldiers taking extra steps to prepare and be proactive in developing capability to support, rather than avoiding it completely.

Why people behave the way they do appears to be an area of continuous research by Psychologists with ideas and theories frequently changing. Research suggests there is no single determinant or theory that can be used to explain or predict exercise behaviours, however it is reasonable to determine that Beck’s Cognitive Behaviourism theory and Bandura’s Social Cognitive theory would both be key in influencing an active lifestyle[27]. Beck’s Cognitive Behaviourism theory underpins Dweck’s[28] psychological trait of Mindset, in that cognitions which can change influence feelings which determine behaviour[29]. The notion that thoughts can change aligns well to Mindsets being able to change; fixed to Growth and vice versa. It is important to note Bandura’s Social Cognitive theory as it also affects behavioural change through the use of the environment; it involves self-regulation, self-reflection, expectations, values and self-efficacy. The two behavioural theories appear to be interlinked suggesting that if a person’s thoughts and feelings can be changed through a positive environment then it is highly likely the desired behaviour will be achieved.

As well as the ageing process, uniformed personnel in middle adulthood have added soldiering environmental barriers such as weather, fatigue, time pressure, group exercise (which could be likened to Skinner’s Operant Conditioning[30]) to name a few. PT instructor awareness around the importance of creating the optimal environment for exercise will go a long way to improving attendance at PT – enabling the change in Mindset, improving self-efficacy and encouraging self-regulation (goal setting and planning), which are all key factors in influencing the desired behavioural change of living an active lifestyle[31].

In summary, those in middle adulthood will be experiencing the ageing process which can be reduced or delayed through physical activity. Despite the benefits of physical activity, inactivity rates are high due to a variety of barriers. Cognitive Behavioural and Social Cognitive theories lay a foundation for adopting the psychological trait of Mindset. Further to this, an optimal environment that encourages a change in thoughts through a growth mindset, will influence feelings and produce a desired behaviour, which for the purpose of this article is adopting and maintaining an active lifestyle in middle adulthood in order to sustain an ageing workforce.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Middle adulthood refers to 40-65years.

[2] Medium age refers to half of the population being under the age of 46 and half of it being over the age of 46.

[3] http://www.superseniors.msd.govt.nz/about-superseniors/ageing-population/index.html, 2 May 2020.

http://www.superseniors.msd.govt.nz/about-superseniors/media/index.html, 2 May 2020.

[4] Laura Berk, Development through the Lifespan (4th ed). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2006.

[5] Martin Mackey, Promoting healthy working life in an ageing and increasingly sedentary society, Journal of Physical Therapy Reviews,18(5), 2013, 358-367.

[6] https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_inactivity/en/, 2 May 2020.

[7] Carol Dweck, Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. London: Robinson, 2012

[8] K. Orvidas, J. Burnette, V. Russell, Mindsets applied to fitness: Growth beliefs predict exercise efficacy, value and frequency, Journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 36, 2013, 156-151.

[9] Berk.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Crystallised intelligence refers to knowledge acquired through experience whereas Fluid intelligence refers to abstract reasoning and quick performance.

[12] Berk.

[13] Ibid.

Cha-Nam, S., Young-Shin, L., Belyea, M. (2018). Physical Activities, Benefits and Barriers across the aging continuum, Journal of Applied Nursing Research, 44, 107-112.

[14] Dweck.

Ghose Bishwajit, Daniel O’leary, Sharmistha Ghosh, Sanni Yaya, Tang  Shangfeng, Zhanchun Feng, Physical inactivity and self-reporting depression among middle – older aged population in south Asia: World Health Survey, Journal of BMC Geriactrics,17(100), 2017.

[15] Olena Andrieieva, Anna Hakman, Vitalii Kashuba, Maryna Vasylenko, Kostiantyn Patsaliuk, Andrii Koshura, Iryna Istyniuk, Effect of Physical Activity on Aging Processes in Elderly Persons, Journal of Physical Education and Sport, 19, 2019, 1308-1314.

Rachel Cooper, Gita Mishra, Diana Kuh, D. Physical Activity across Adulthood and Physical Performance in Midlife, Journal of Preventative Medicine, 41(4), 2011, 376-384.

[16] https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/index.htm, 2 May 2020.

[17] Shin Cha-Nam, Lee Young-Shin, Michael Belyea, Physical Activities, Benefits and Barriers across the aging continuum, Journal of Applied Nursing Research, 44, 2018, 107-112.

[18] Dweck.

[19] Mark Beauchamp, Kaitlin Crawford, Ben Jackson, Social Cognitive Theory and Physical activity: mechanisms of behaviour change, critique, and legacy, Journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 40, 2019, 110-117. 

[20] Dweck.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] M. Lachman, A. Jette, S. Tennstedt, J. Howland, B Harris, E Petterson, A cognitive-behavioural model for promoting regular physical activity in older adults. Journal of Psychology Health and Medicine, 2(3), 2007.

[27] James Annesi, Effects of Cognitive Behavioural Treatment Package on Exercise Attendance and Drop out in Fitness Centres, European Journal of Sport Science, 3(2), 2003, 1-16.

[28] Dweck.

[29] Janet Buckworth, Rod Dishman, Patrick O’Connor, Phillip Tomporowski, Exercise Psychology (2nd ed). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2013.

https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-therapy.html, 2 May 2020.

[30] Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence.

[31] Maria-Christina Kosteli, Jennifer Cumming, Sarah Williams, Self-regulatory imagery and physical activity in middle aged and older adults: A social cognitive perspective, Journal of aging and physical activity, 26(1), 2018, 14-24. Annesi.