While the widespread distribution of vaccines creates hope that the pandemic will soon be brought under control, the extent to which vaccines prevent the spread of COVID-19 is still unknown. For the present, it is important to wear a mask in public and to practice social distancing, even after being fully vaccinated. And since it isn’t easy to know whether strangers have been vaccinated, it is still wise to avoid crowded places.
Although scientists are still not sure when life will return to normal, they have reached a “general consensus that vaccinated people should be able to get together with others who’ve also received the vaccine.” As long as they take precautions, most vaccinated individuals can go outside again.
Lockdowns and self-quarantines have taken their toll on many people during the pandemic. They have been particularly stressful for seniors. Isolation and the loss of physical contact with family members caused many older people to endure stress and depression.
Inactivity caused by lockdowns has also had an impact on the physical health of seniors. Staying indoors limited the opportunities for exercise that were once routine. Gyms in retirement communities have been off limits. Even walks to a nearby market have been foregone. As a consequence, many seniors feel less energetic and more troubled by aches and pains.
Health Benefits of Physical Activity
Most people understand the link between physical activity and good health. Maintaining an active lifestyle is particularly important as people age. Physical activity helps seniors maintain their functional abilities, including mobility and independence.
Physical activity also helps seniors avoid or cope with heart disease and the deterioration of brain functions. Aerobic exercise can reduce blood pressure and improve muscle strength. Balance and strength exercises help seniors avoid falls and maintain mobility.
Physical activity does not necessarily mean vigorous daily exercise. Leaving a residence to go shopping or to join in community activities is part of a healthy lifestyle. Formal exercise is nevertheless important. Walking, golfing, swimming, biking, or participating in an exercise class can help seniors maintain their quality of life.
While any physical activity is better than none, seniors can maximize the health benefits of exercise by following these guidelines:
- Exercise moderately for 2½ to 5 hours per week, or exercise vigorously for 1¼ to 2½ hours week (or find an equivalent balance of moderate and vigorous exercise).
- Perform aerobic exercises for 10 minutes at a time.
- Combine aerobic exercise with strength and balance training.
Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, most seniors were not as physically active as the guidelines recommend. After a year of staying home, working toward a healthy lifestyle may pose a difficult challenge.
Building a Post-Pandemic Exercise Program
Walking is the obvious starting point in a plan to become more active. After vaccinations and in areas that public health authorities deem safe, older people can begin to increase their stamina with daily walks.
To maximize cardiovascular benefits, seniors can gradually increase the pace of their walks. Brisk walks are more beneficial than leisurely walks. Jogging is even better. The best pace should be determined in consultation with the senior’s physician, particularly if the senior has been diagnosed with a heart problem.
Studies show that walking on its own “does not provide older people with sufficient strength or balance challenge to reduce fall or fracture risk.” Strength and balance exercises, tailored to the senior’s functional abilities, should be a part of most exercise routines.
Repeatedly standing from a sitting position is a simple exercise that improves strength in leg muscles. Ideally, seniors should stand without using their arms for support, but the exercise can be modified as needed.
Other gentle strength exercises include partial squats, leg extensions, and pushing off from a wall. Seniors who have access to light weights can build their arm and chest muscles by doing bicep curls.
Easy balance exercises include the one-leg stand, walking sideways or heel-to-toe, and the “grapevine” exercise (walking sideways while crossing one foot over the other).
Scotland’s National Health Service suggests three levels of strength and balance exercises for seniors. Each level increases in difficulty. To help seniors decide which level is the right starting point, the SNHS suggests a simple one-leg balance test. The SNHS website offers videos to illustrate how the test and the recommended exercise should be performed.
An Australian team of physiotherapists developed a website that recommends a range of physical activities to promote fitness, strength, balance, and flexibility. The website again breaks the exercises into three levels, ranging from exercises for seniors whose mobility is limited to those who are able to take a long walk.
The AARP recommends performing self-assessments of the shoulders, hips, and ability to move. It also suggests adding leg lunges and toe stands to a daily exercise routine.
While many of the recommended exercises can be performed indoors, there’s nothing like fresh air and sunshine to improve moods and encourage physical activity. As restrictions on outdoor activity ease, many seniors will be able to add outdoor aerobic activities like biking and hiking to their exercise routine. Again, seniors who have health conditions and those who have been inactive for a prolonged time should consult with their physician before beginning an exercise program.