Aging Parents: Maintaining Mobility into Old, Old Age–The Dangers of Sitting Too Much

Sedentary Seniors and Couch-Potato Elders—Walk More. Sit Less

How limiting is life for those with curtailed mobility?

Look around…so many people with canes and walkers as our population ages. Based on the Tufts U. publication–reprinted below–it seems their numbers would lessen if the elderly couch potatoes we care about (as well as those of us who now spend hours sitting at a desk), make it a point to take breaks for a brief walk. What could be easier?

The importance of older peoples’ walking is nothing new to longtime readers of my blog.  “If you begin a daily walking program at age 45, you could delay immobility to 90 and beyond. If you become a couch potato at 45 and remain so, immobility can encroach as early as 60.” So says Mark Lachs, author of Treat Me, Not My Age.   (Dr. Lachs is Chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Weill Medical College in NY among other positions, and first written about in my 2010  post featuring Jane Brody’s NY Times columnWhat to Do Now to Feel Better at 100.) 

Sr. Advisor R, was living proof. She didn’t use a cane (didn’t own one as far as I know) until she was 97–after her broken hip episode. instead R walked daily on a treadmill from age 50 (as written previously–not the plug in kind, your feet make it go). And R continued using that treadmill daily–until she died.

(R’s best friend [93] is the beneficiary of that treadmill and phoned last week, laughingly saying she knew it was bequeathed to her and she’d send a strong young relative over to pick it up if that was OK.)

Further proof was my dad, who was 94 before I ever saw him use a cane….and then he used Mom’s old cane, which probably wasn’t the right fit; but he said he only used it when he felt weak. Out of respect, I never pushed him on the subject. (His mind was good.) That said, he not only walked a lot, he had to walk upstairs to his bedroom and down the basement stairs to get into his car. Thus, many leg muscles were exercised daily and mobility was never an issue other than that he walked slower than in his younger days.

A well-respected chiropractor in Westchester County, NY told me that he could always tell which patients wintered in Florida because they didn’t get the exercise walking stairs provided. Enough said. Here’s the latest  on “sedentary sitters”–

Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter

August 24, 2015

Brief Walks May Counter Health Dangers of Too Much Sitting

Multiple studies have warned about the health risks of sitting too much. Hours spent sitting, whether at desks or in front of the television, have been linked to increased odds of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and kidney problems. But modern life can make it difficult to stay out of chairs, and alternatives such as “standing desks” don’t appeal to everyone.

A new study may offer hope to sedentary sitters: Using data on more than 3,600 adults, researchers found that brief periods of simply walking around the room substantially reduced mortality risk among people who spent long periods sitting. As little as two minutes of gentle walking per hour was associated with a 33% lower risk compared to non-stop sitting.

“We know that exercise is good for us and yet, despite this, our society has become more sedentary than ever,” says Miriam E. Nelson, PhD, associate dean of the Tisch College and a professor in Tufts’ Friedman School, author of the “Strong Women” series of books. “We are built to move, and when our bodies move on a regular basis, they are healthy; when they don’t, when we’re largely sedentary, our bodies deteriorate.”

MEASURING MOVEMENT: In the study, published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, Srinivasan Beddhu, MD, of the University of Utah, and colleagues analyzed data from the annual National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). In recent surveys, selected participants have supplemented their questionnaire answers by wearing activity monitors called accelerometers; this gives a more accurate record of a person’s movements than depending on individual recall. Most of the participants were generally healthy, although a subgroup of 383 people had chronic kidney disease.

Researchers divided participants into four groups based on minutes per hour of different levels of accelerometer activity: sedentary/sitting, low (such as standing up but not walking around much), light (such as strolling around a room or walking into another room), and moderate/vigorous (jogging or other exercise). The study then compared activity levels to records of deaths three or four years after the assessment.

ADDITIVE ACTIVITY: There was little difference in mortality between the sedentary and low-activity groups. But people who interrupted their sitting with light activity were at significantly lower mortality risk than those who were completely sedentary; this difference was even sharper among the kidney-disease subgroup (41%). As little as two minutes an hour of light activity was enough to be associated with lower risk.

Boosting activity levels to moderate/vigorous further reduced risk, but the number of such active participants was too low to be statistically significant. Adding additional minutes of light activity, however, did make a significant difference. Getting up from your chair for two minutes or five minutes more light activity rather than sitting time, Dr. Beddhu said, could further reduce risk of premature death.

He cautioned that the study was observational, and so can’t prove cause and effect. And Tufts’ Nelson notes that a quick walking break from your chair is no substitute for regular physical activity. But if you’ve been worried about the health risks of sitting too much, apparently every little bit helps.”

Last January (2015) Time magazine’s online article discusses the sitting dangers and recommends “standing up and moving around every half hour

Check out “Newsworthy” (right sidebar). Links to timely tips, information and research from top universities and respected professionals–to help parents age well.

Related: Helpful information from his book in ABC 2010 interview with Dr. Lachs.
Jane Brody’s NY Times columnWhat to Do Now to Feel Better at 100
Time Magazine online, 2/
2015 . It Doesn’t Matter How Much You Exercise if You Also Do This
USA Today 2/2014. Don’t just sit there! It could be harmful in later life.

2 thoughts on “Aging Parents: Maintaining Mobility into Old, Old Age–The Dangers of Sitting Too Much

  1. This is an interesting post – I wonder sometimes if my dad’s mobility dropping off somewhat is related to him not using the stairs since he moved out of my childhood home.

    • You might want to ask his doctor. It seems the quote “If you don’t use it, you lose it” is so applicable to older people. That said, Sr. Advisor R lived in a 1-story home (no stairs) for 65+ years and her regular treadmill use was, we think, a big factor in her not needing a cane until she recovered from her broken hip at 97. Wishing your dad well.

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