As aging adults practice social distancing to stay safe from COVID-19, it’s important they don’t fall into physical inactivity. When older adults don’t get regular exercise, for example, they may become prone to chronic diseases, weakened muscles, and frailty.

In a new study, a research team from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil reported on the dangers of physical inactivity for older adults during COVID-19. They also offer practical strategies to help the aging population stay active during this time.

The researchers note that it only takes five to 10 days of physical inactivity for a person’s muscles to begin shrinking and wasting away. This can speed the progression of sarcopenia (muscle loss) and can lead to chronic diseases. Studies also show that older adults who walk fewer than 1,500 steps a day can lose 4 percent of the muscle tissue in their legs in just two weeks.

Although it’s too soon to know how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect physical activity in the long term, the researchers say that wearable trackers (such as Fitbit) provide early estimates. Information from 30 million users worldwide estimate a 12 percent step-count decline in the United States (comparing the week of March 22, between 2019 and 2020), and an even greater decline in other countries.

Having an adequate amount of muscle mass enables you to be strong; being weak or frail is a known risk factor for death in older adults. In fact, two weeks of inactivity (a 75 percent daily step reduction) has been shown to decrease muscle strength by 8 percent, and research has shown that two weeks of rehabilitation exercises do not help people rebuild their muscle strength.

Furthermore, reducing steps to between 1,000 to 1,500 steps per day has been shown to raise blood sugar and increase inflammation.

The research team suggests that strategies to reduce the potential unhealthy effects of isolation are important. For example, resistance exercise is a classic and proven method to increase muscle mass, strength, and mobility, even for people in their 90s. Exercise programs you can do at home are especially important during isolation, and are a good way to maintain or even improve your muscle health and mobility. Exercise also helps prevent falls, a common cause of disability and hospitalization for older adults.

The researchers suggest that health education for older adults should include recommendations to introduce light activity into daily routines, focusing on sitting less and moving more, which is particularly important for people with mobility issues.

Recommended ways to incorporate more movement include the following:

  • interrupting prolonged sitting time by taking strolling or standing breaks (such as moving around during commercials while watching TV);
  • performing light household chores like cleaning and gardening and enjoying leisure activities such as dancing or short-distance walking;
  • joining family members in-person (when safe) or remotely by FaceTime or Zoom to stay active and gain emotional support.

The paper appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Hamilton Roschel, Ph.D.; Guilherme G. Artioli, Ph.D.; and Bruno Gualano, Ph.D.

Source: American Geriatrics Society