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How to help your elderly relatives ‘snack on exercise’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recently announced $1.1 billion package includes an important boost for mental health services. During this period of social restrictions and physical distancing, it’s a move that will be welcomed by many older Australians, who are being asked to stay at home to minimise their exposure to COVID-19.

The new rules governing our lives have been made crystal clear in recent weeks – ‘stay home and save lives’. The focus of the messages we’re hearing is often on what we can’t do – we can’t go out, we can’t socialise with our friends and family. For our loved ones aged over 70, the unintended consequences of these messages can extend beyond mental health.

Not everyone can join an online fitness class

Dr Jackson Fyfe, a Strength and Conditioning Sciences lecturer at Deakin University, fears the highly visible, technology-enabled spike in online fitness classes and virtual racing, as well as the more traditional pursuits of running and cycling, is hiding worrying levels of inactivity among our elderly relatives.

Dr Fyfe, who works in the University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, focuses his research on the benefits of short, simple, regular bouts of exercise. He describes short-term inactivity as a disaster for muscle mass, strength and metabolic health for older people.

‘10 days in hospital can lead to the equivalent of 10 years of muscle loss in older people, whilst seven days of bed rest can lead to a 10% loss in muscle strength,’ Dr Fyfe says. ‘These are extreme, albeit very common, scenarios.’

Previous research, led by Professor Robin Daly, chair in Exercise and Ageing at Deakin, found that among community dwelling older people, aged 65 or older, even the simple act of sitting for longer each day – the trend for many at the moment – leads to lower muscle (lean) mass and higher fat mass.

So, whilst it’s clear subtle shifts in behaviour can have significant negative impacts on older Australians, the problem is far from insurmountable and we can all play our part.

'10 days in hospital can lead to the equivalent of 10 years of muscle loss in older people, whilst seven days of bed rest can lead to a 10% loss in muscle strength.'

Dr Jackson Fyfe,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

‘It’s as simple as introducing the concept of ‘strength snacks’ during our regular phone and video calls with loved-ones,’ Dr Fyfe says.

‘Snacks are usually thought of as a bad thing, but it’s a concept that resonates. So, if we can persuade our loved ones to snack on exercise regularly throughout the day, we’ll be helping them to maintain their muscle strength and function to stay healthy, which they’ll thank us for when this crisis passes.’

What kind of exercise can we ‘snack’ on?

The great news is ‘exercise snacks’ are simple and easy. The exercises need not be time-intensive, nor do they require equipment, which can often be expensive.

Something is most definitely better than nothing when it comes to activity. We’re talking between five and 10 minutes at a few convenient times during the day. Dr Fyfe is keen to emphasise that even very low doses of exercise can maintain or improve measures of muscle strength and functional capacity in older people.

‘It’s nothing like the scale or intensity recommended by the national exercise guidelines for those aged between 18 and 64, which can feel unrealistic for some people – even in the younger part of that age bracket in less turbulent times.’

Prof. Daly’s earlier research found taking frequent breaks while sitting makes older people 45% less likely to have lower muscle mass. However, standing up and going for short walks, while encouraged, won’t improve muscle strength or function.

‘We should be encouraging short bouts, two or three times a day, of muscle strengthening and balance activities such as 30 to 60 seconds of sit-to-stands, squats, vertical push-ups (against a wall), calf raises and knee raises as well as challenging balance activities like standing on one leg or heel-to-toes walking in a straight line,’ Dr Fyfe says.

How can we change the message?

So, next time you’re chatting to your mum and dad or your grandma and grandad – or perhaps the single, older person you’ve been delivering groceries to for the last few weeks – Dr Fyfe suggests taking the chance to modify the COVID-19 message to: ‘Yes, stay home and save lives, but stay active with two or three daily strength snacks.’

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Dr Jackson Fyfe
Dr Jackson Fyfe

Lecturer, Strength an Conditioning Sciences, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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