Physical inactivity can cause rapid decline in the elderly

1 May 2019

According to a recent study in The Journal of Physiology, older people who are not active or spend long periods sitting down can quickly see a loss of mobility and muscle mass.

The results reveal why it’s so crucial for seniors to stay physically active in later life, and to maintain activity following periods of enforced inactivity – following hospitalisation, for example.

For the very first time, researchers were able to show how the same level of inactivity has a more serious impact the muscles of older people than young people, including in the lower limbs, which is essential to day-to-day movements such as climbing stairs.

Detailed research into sedentary lifestyles

This research – which was carried out by the University of Udine and the University of Padova – measured the impact of total inactivity in a test group of elderly people who were bedridden in a clinical environment for two weeks. The results were compared against those of young individuals in the same environment.

Compared to young subjects, the elderly subjects displayed a difference in single muscle fibre response as a result of disuse, as well as a more noticeable loss of muscle mass and a change in the way muscle contraction is controlled by the nervous system. In addition, the findings show that recovery was more complex and took longer for the elderly patients.

According to the researchers, this study was carried out with healthy elderly people, meaning that the impact of inactivity and how hard they find it to recover could be even greater in seniors who have diseases or illnesses.

Even a little goes a long way

Several studies have previously shown that even modest physical activity can lead to health improvements in later life.

For example, research from the University Hospital of Saint-Etienne claims that 15 minutes of daily exercise at the pace of a brisk walk could reduce the risk of death by 22% in older adults. Elderly people who exercised for longer lowered their risk by as much as 35% compared to those who did no exercise at all.

Another study from the University of Buffalo showed that doing simple tasks around the house can help you live longer, like folding laundry and sweeping floors. It’s all about keeping the muscles working.

Try simple sitting exercises

Moderate exercise in later life doesn’t have to be too strenuous. Even simple activities can help improve overall mobility and even prevent falls.

If you’re looking for an easy way keep yourself moving, even if you have limited mobility, the seated exercises listed below could be the perfect place to start. There’s no need to stress if you haven’t been active for a while. These are designed to be gentle and easy to do.

Here’s what you need to get started

  • A seat (a solid, stable chair without arms or wheels)
  • Sit with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent at right angles
  • Wear loose clothing and have water to hand
  • Take it slowly and aim to increase the number of repetitions over time
  • Try to do these twice a week or more

1. Chest stretch – to improve posture

  • Sit upright and away from the back of your chair
  • Pull your shoulders back and down – and extend your arms out to the side
  • Gradually push your chest forward and up to feel a stretch across your chest
  • Hold for 5-10 seconds and repeat 5 times

2. Hip marching – to improve flexibility

  • Sit upright – making sure you don’t lean on the back of the chair
  • Hold the sides of the chair
  • Bend your left knee and lift your leg as far as you can
  • Put your foot down slowly
  • Repeat the action with your right leg
  • Repeat 5 times on each side

3. Arm raises – to improve shoulder strength

  • Sit up straight with your arms down by your sides
  • Face your palms forward, raise both arms out and to the side, and life up as far as you can
  • Return to your starting position
  • Make sure your shoulders stay down and arms straight throughout
  • Repeat 5 times

Click here to see more sitting exercises from the NHS.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.


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