Society is slowly opening up and we are being told to accept the ‘new normal’. But what state has the pandemic has left us in physically? Many of my friends in their sixties and older complain that their fitness level has been compromised over the last two years. Not only have they gone out less, moved less, but some have felt more depression take root in their bodies.
Strength is a premium asset for older adults who want to continue to function independently. As we age, we automatically lose muscle power and mass and fiber-type composition unless we work hard to combat this decline. What are the posture, balance, strength and mood consequences of two years plus of reduced activities, lockdowns, and gym and swimming pool closures? This is a question we may well ask ourselves as we slowly circle out of the pandemic.
Dr. Marla Beauchamp researches mobility and ageing at McMaster University in Hamilton. She looked at the fitness health of Canadian adults, both those who had contracted Covid-19 and those who had not. Her focus was on older adults living in the community rather than retirement facilities. It will be no surprise to anyone that Dr. Beauchamp’s study revealed worsening mobility in those with mild or moderate Covid-19, even in the absence of hospitalization. (January 12th,2022 Jamanetwork.com)
In one study Beauchamp focused on older adults living in Hamilton, Ontario who managed to avoid contracting Covid. (bmjopen.bmj.com. Volume 11, issue 12) These adults, 65 and up, also felt their fitness levels had deteriorated. This study began in May 2020, with follow ups at 3, 6, 9 and 12 months. Even small tasks such as dishwashing and dusting felt more fatiguing; and Beauchamp noted short term and medium term changes in mobility and participation. This is in the group who did not have a single Covid infection! Because of public health restrictions and fear of Covid, seniors were less likely to engage in physical activities such as in-person shopping and going to their gym, or venturing outside to walk and bike as they did before.
What happens when older bodies do less? Weakness creeps in quickly. Research shows older adults lose fast-twitch (power) as well as slow-twitch (endurance) fibres as they age, but especially the fast-twitch (Link to March 31, 2021 blog). Walking around your house, rather than hiking outside or working out with weights, means muscles in the legs and arms will atrophy. Ankles and feet lose mobility and flexibility. A decrease in steadiness on your feet can lead to trips and falls.
Curtailing activities means not only a loss of joy and pride in doing things for oneself but also creates a growing self-image of dependency, even fear. Interacting with the world enhances not only physical health but creativity, and the ability of the brain to form new connections. Studies like Dr. Beauchamp’s are crucial to understand what happened in the pandemic and how to do better next time to support older adults, not abandon them.
When the residents in my parents’ Calgary Independent Living facility were confined to their apartments during lockdowns, it meant my father would miss his daily fitness class. I was so grateful that the manager was clearsighted enough to allow the fitness classes to go on, not in the shuttered gym, but in the facility’s long hallways. Chairs were placed 8 feet apart—and these chairs remained in the hall for the entire time that the gym was closed. Think of how life saving out-of-the-box ideas like this are!
Covid shrank our lives, but it’s never too late to fight to get back to where we were before. A trainer can guide you, a tape or a class can inspire you, but only you can bring to this journey the perseverance it may take. The first step could be to find a physiotherapist to give specific exercises for your particular issues.
Below, I have also reposted two workouts. The first is a 25-Minute Restorative workout suitable for older adults who are returning to exercise. It takes place down on the mat so it might not be suitable for everyone. The second workout is 12-Minute Intermediate Workout using a Pool Noodle or a Roller. As with any fitness routine, please talk to your health provider before doing either video.