By: Grechen Reynolds
Published April 22, 2020
By: Grechen Reynolds
When we asked readers what they want to know about exercise and the coronavirus, many of you wrote that you were concerned about how to exercise and maintain fitness if you or someone you love is older or has functional limitations, such as arthritis or joint replacements. Experts who study exercise and aging had a lot to say.Among their suggestions: Soup-can dumbbells and indoor gardening might help older people who are new to working out to weather the physical effects of a prolonged coronavirus lockdown. Access to a stairwell also is a boon, they say, but even a hallway can be a route to sustained fitness.Past science suggests that any health impacts from prolonged home confinement are likely to be greatest among older people. In multiple studies, when adults of any age become more inactive because of illness, injury or requests from scientists, they rapidly lose strength and endurance and develop early signs of insulin resistance and molecular changes related to muscle loss. In younger people, such physiological weakening typically reverses as soon as they start moving and exercising normally again. But in older people, the effects can linger and accelerate the onset of frailty.Some experts have begun to worry that this scenario is playing out among older people during the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. “I think we’re seeing a slow-motion version of the kind of declines that usually occur when older people are hospitalized or bedridden,” says Dr. Louise Aronson, a professor of geriatrics and health at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life.”
Dr. Aronson and other exercise scientists offered a variety of recommendations about the types and amounts of activities older people might try to complete in their buildings, homes, living rooms or even chairs during the lockdowns to stave off frailty and maintain their health. The expert responses proved to be uniformly reassuring, boiling down to the advice that all of us, regardless of age, move whenever and however we can, using whatever equipment we already have at hand.More specifically, the experts suggest starting with a focus on aerobic conditioning, which, in practical terms, means walking, if at all possible, but not necessarily formal walks. Instead, Dr. Aronson says, try to build movement into ostensibly sedentary parts of your day.
“During a phone call,” she says, “walk around the room or up and down a hallway” (assuming you are not using a landline). When you watch television, get up during each commercial break and stroll from room to room. Or if you have access to a stairwell, she says, climb a flight or two of steps, which provides a brief but effective aerobic workout and some leg strengthening. Wear a mask and gloves if the stairs are public, of course, and hold tight to the banister.Ideally, older people should aim to stroll from room to room or up and down a corridor at least three times a day, Dr. Aronson says. “It may be only two or three minutes of activity at a time, but it all counts and adds up.”Look, too, for opportunities for simple, low-tech muscle workouts, the experts all say. Even skimpy, intermittent resistance training can help people avoid shedding muscle mass and strength during this lockdown.