Prolonged inactivity indoors could lead to poorer health, weakened muscles in seniors

Madam Prema Gurunath, 80, used to take morning walks to a Hindu temple a kilometre away from her home in Woodlands.

Apart from helping her stay active, the daily trips to the temple gave her mental and spiritual satisfaction.

On the way back, the housewife would sit on a bench in a park, soaking up the sunlight and admiring the flowers.

However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, she has not gone on her morning walks.

Many seniors have likewise had to forgo outdoor exercise during the circuit breaker.

Even as some of the social distancing measures are eased from tomorrow, the elderly will still largely have to stay indoors.

Doing so for an extensive period of time, coupled with inactivity, could result in weaker muscles and worse physical health for seniors, say experts.

“Physical activity is crucial in managing certain health risk factors like high blood pressure, blood sugar abnormalities and obesity, which slows down the progression of chronic diseases,” says Singapore General Hospital’s senior physiotherapist Josephine Wang, 33.

“Therefore, confinement and inactivity predispose the elderly to a decline in their muscle strength, physical endurance and general physical health,” she adds.

Mr Alvin Lim, 42, principal instructor of Embrace Fitness, a family-friendly fitness studio in Geylang Bahru, says: “A more sedentary lifestyle will slowly lead to less range of motion and a lack of energy as the body adapts to a new environment.

“It will also lead to a gradual loss of psychomotor coordination as the neural system is less simulated, resulting in more balancing issues and a higher likelihood of falling.”

Exercises to try at home

To mitigate the negative effects of prolonged confinement, Mr Alvin Lim, 42, principal instructor of Embrace Fitness, suggests four exercises for the elderly to do at home

1 SQUATS

Squats are useful for maintaining lower body strength. It is also a functional exercise that can be done every day, such as when picking up objects from the floor and putting laundry into a front-loaded washing machine. An easier version can be done by sitting on a chair and standing up.

2 WALL PUSH-UPS

Push-ups are good for maintaining upper body strength, particularly in the chest and arms.

For an easier alternative, do a vertical push-up against a wall.

3 PLANKS

Doing planks helps maintain core strength.

This in turn will help the elderly maintain good coordination and balance. If a full-body plank is too hard, try planking with knees on the floor.

4 JOGGING ON THE SPOT

This can help one to maintain good cardiovascular health. Seniors should try to reach a point at which they start panting and maintain that as long as they can.

Raising the legs while seated on a chair also does the trick.

Ms Wang suggests checking out the resources prepared by the Health Promotion Board on exercises for the elderly. The videos or information sheets are available online for streaming or downloading and provide a step-by-step guide and demonstration on carrying out home exercises safely.

“The elderly should consult his or her physician or physiotherapist before engaging in any form of exercise, and perform proper warm-up and cool-down before and after a workout,” she adds.

For some seniors such as retiree K.G. Chan, 86, it is not so much the lack of physical exercise but the lack of interactions with friends that they miss. Mr Chan occupies himself by taking care of his garden, but misses his friends. “I miss chit-chatting with my friends at the coffee shop over a cup of kopi.”

Staying indoors for too long can certainly take a toll on the elderly mentally, say experts.

“Prolonged confinement can be mentally challenging because it affects not only their physical activities, but also their social interactions and engagement with their friends and neighbours through inter-connected activities, for example, taiji,” says Mr Christopher Gabriel, 58, a senior principal psychologist at Singapore General Hospital. “This can lead to a decline in mood as well as increased stress, frustration and anger, among other emotions.”

He advises family members of the elderly to set up video calls with their friends, as social engagement could help relieve stress.

Mr Lim notes that the lack of activity and staying indoors for prolonged periods could also lead to an “absence of stimulus of endorphins, a feel-good hormone that is associated with regular activities”.

“This is closely related to depression and anxiety. The general lack of purpose and inability to adapt to a forced change in schedule and environment can create a lot of stress for the elderly,” he adds.

To combat this, he suggests doing yoga, which requires little space and is useful for managing stress and maintaining mental well-being.

Other than physical exercise, seniors should do more housework and meaningful physical activities in a safe environment, such as gardening and cooking.

Bonding activities can also serve as physical exercise for the elderly. These include games such as balloon badminton, where players try to keep a balloon in the air with their hands.

For Madam Gurunath, doing yoga and meditation have helped her to keep active and healthy during the circuit breaker. “All the yoga asanas (poses) give me strength and nourish the vital organs, which are essential especially at my age when I do not want to be dependent on others. My philosophy is, ‘God helps those who help themselves’, so I do my part to keep healthy and leave the rest to God.”

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