Diehl’s AgingPLUS program at CSU expanding with $2.7 million NIH grant

A CSU pilot program designed to get older adults exercising more has turned a few years of seed money into a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Being physically active is something that most physicians recommend, regardless of their patients’ age, but as adults move from midlife into later life, many stop being active on a regular basis.

Studies have shown that adults become less physically active after the age of 50. Guidelines recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but in reality, only 20 percent of the adult population meets this standard.


Just telling people to become physically active simply isn’t enough, and that’s where Colorado State University’s AgingPLUS program comes in. Manfred Diehl, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and a team of other researchers are testing a new approach on how to better motivate middle-aged and older adults to make physical activity a lasting part of their daily routine.

AgingPLUS is a program that Diehl started as a pilot several years ago to provide participants with insights on how they can fit exercise into their daily life. Funding for the initial years of the project was provided by the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute ($25,000), the Colorado School of Public Health ($20,000) and the Prevention Research Center in the College of Health and Human Sciences ($30,000).

Participants received both exercise and education during the pilot program, which was held for two hours a week for a total of eight weeks. Diehl recruited locally for older adults who spent weeks 1-4 learning about the aging process, working with instructors in CSU’s Adult Fitness Program to develop personal fitness goals and learn how to realistically achieve them. In the second half of the program, participants kept an activity log, monitoring their daily physical activity, their mood while exercising, and their and progress towards their goals.

Instructors working with AgingPLUS participants

Changing attitudes

“The pilot we helped fund focused on making adults’ negative views on aging more positive, thereby laying that attitudinal foundation for increased engagement in health-promoting behaviors such as regular physical activity,” said Lorann Stallones, director of the Colorado School of Public Health at CSU. “We are so pleased to see that the program has been successful for Dr. Diehl.”

The new five-year grant, awarded by the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, is for a randomized controlled trial titled “Testing Psychological Mechanisms to Promote Physical Activity in Adults.” Unlike its predecessor, in which a limited number of participants were monitored for only two months, the new study will follow about 300 study participants, each over the course of an entire year.

Next steps

Aging isn’t just a mental issue, and Diehl wants to expand the study to see if there is a correlation between health-care costs and things like exercise levels, diet and sleep.

“It’s a public health issue,” he says. “Investing in teaching people to grow older in a healthier way has tremendous payoffs in the long run.”  

The interdisciplinary research team for AgingPLUS includes researchers from multiple disciplines and universities, including Matthew Hickey and Kaigang Li in CSU’s Department of Health and Exercise Science. Hickey is overseeing the cardiorespiratory fitness assessments of study participants, while Li will assess physical activity using accelerometer technology. Other collaborators include George Rebok and David Roth at Johns Hopkins University and Alison Chasteen at the University of Toronto.

Diehl is an internationally recognized aging researcher who has dedicated his career to better understand the psychological factors of optimal aging. He’s won numerous awards for his work, including the Humboldt Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Diehl, who is a University Distinguished Professor at CSU, plans to start recruiting participants between the ages of 45 and 75 next spring.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.