Elderly women may spend as much as two-thirds of their waking hours in sedentary behavior, a new Harvard study has found. But an expert says the findings still show an opportunity for even sedentary older people to exercise and stay healthier.
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Ronan Factora, MD, did not take part in the study but is a geriatrician at Cleveland Clinic.
“The women in this study just don’t spend the whole day sitting down without a break,” notes Dr. Factora. “This suggests there are many opportunities throughout the day to participate in physical activity and exercise.”
Sedentary time of short duration
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health studied 7,000 women, with an average age of 71. They wore an accelerometer to measure their movement for a week.
Results show that after seven days, women wore the device for almost 15 hours each day, but about 10 hours of that time was spent sitting down.
However, researchers say most of this sedentary time occurred in periods of shorter duration, averaging at least 30 minutes at a time.
Benefits of being just a little more active
Researchers and Dr. Factora hope the results could be used to educate older men and women alike about the benefits of becoming a little more active.
“Clearly the benefits for all of the major diseases — high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol — can be impacted by being physically active and exercising,” says Dr. Factora.
Dr. Factora says as little as 15-30 minutes a day spent walking can provide health benefits.
“The idea would be to choose to do an exercise during the daytime once you get up and start moving around — integrate the activity into the daily routine,” says Dr. Factora. “If family comes to visit their elderly family member, they should use some of the time to encourage or participate in some form of exercise.”
Tips for staying active around the house
Dr. Factora suggests a few simple exercises:
- Walk around the house for 15 minutes. “If you can only tolerate a little, than start with that,” says Dr. Factora. “Let’s say you can only tolerate 5 minutes of walking and then have to take a break. In that case, take your break, but when you’re ready do 5 minutes more and then take another break. Continue this cycle until you have accumulated 15 minutes walking.”
- Do modified squats to strengthen the legs by moving from seated to standing position several times consecutively. Dr. Factora suggests doing this during a commercial break while watching TV — do it several times while watching a 30- or 60-minute TV show.
- Move your legs and arms around while seated. “These exercises involve sitting down, but you can see how simple exercises can be integrated easily in a daily routine without the need for a gym or special equipment,” says Dr. Factora.
Work with your doctor
Dr. Factora suggests that if you have pain, as many older people do, take an analgesic that your physician has recommended before exercising.
“Often acetaminophen/Tylenol® is safe and effective one hour prior to activity to help reduce the pain,” says Dr. Factora. “The goal of this intervention is to reduce the pain enough so that the individual can participate in exercises. You can still exercise if you have chronic heart and lung disease as long as it is with the guidance of your physician.”
“Participating in physical activity has benefits. This is certainly different from what the authors of this study were looking at — the drawbacks of being sedentary— but it is certainly one part of the same puzzle of how to best spend your awake time.”