EIM Blog

Updates from EIM

Physical Activity, COVID-19 and Older Adults

November 06, 2020 by EIM Older Adults Committee; Kate Edwards, Ph.D.; Garrett Kellar, Ed.D.; David Marquez, Ph.D.; Jeff Schlicht, Ph.D.

Before the onset of COVID-19 older adults were known to be more isolated than others. Now family and friends see older adults less often, especially when they reside in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where infections rates and deaths have been high and visitors are restricted. (data from CMS here; guidance from CDC here). Because older adults are at greater risk of developing serious COVID-19 complications, they may feel unsafe going outside, even for essential trips. This self-enforced social isolation sets the stage for increased risk of anxiety and depression. Fortunately, engaging in exercise decreases anxiety and depression risk and treats the symptoms of those diseases. (https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/PAG_Advisory_Committee_Report.pdf).  

We all hope to get back to our normal exercise routines once there is a COVID-19 vaccine. Unfortunately, as people age the effect of vaccination is blunted because older immune systems produce fewer antibodies against invaders like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The good news is that exercise appears to improve immune system response to vaccination.

Older adults with a chronic history of exercise, and those undergoing acute bouts of exercise before vaccination, produce more antibodies against strains of influenza. Several studies have seen this effect, though the clinical significance remains unclear as further research is needed. It’s reasonable to assume the same exercise effect could occur with a COVID-19 vaccine.

In addition, exercise just before vaccination has other benefits. It reduces side-effects, including:

  • tenderness and swelling at the injection site
  • reduced appetite
  • feeling unwell

While we wait for a vaccine to be released, what exercise should we recommend to our older clients? Use these suggestions to begin a conversation.

Cardiorespiratory exercise (Cardio)
Walking outdoors is always a good cardio option. However, when you’re outside try to stay at least six feet away from others and wear your mask. If walking outside isn’t an option, marching in place or stepping up and down off the first riser of your staircase could be an alternative.

Research tells us even small amounts of activity can elicit health benefits. If you opt to stay at home, decreasing sedentary time should be your first goal.

Strength Training
Use your own body weight to your advantage as you think of ways to combine household tasks with extra movement:

  • Washing the dishes? Do heel raises in front of the sink.
  • Putting your groceries away? Use bags full of food to add resistance to biceps curls or front shoulder raises.

Cardio + Strength Training
At the start of every TV commercial break, or between episodes of your favorite streaming show, complete a cardio and strength training circuit by doing:

  • 1 lap around the house
  • 8 chair sit-stands
  • 1 circuit up and down the stairs
  • 8 chair or wall push-ups

Exercise classes
Familiar with YouTube? Do a pre-recorded workout on that platform or join a live-stream group fitness class from your local gym to help support a small business while you workout.  

Exercise is one of the best tools we have to cope with the stress and anxiety of the pandemic. No matter your age, exercise is medicine. Taken regularly, it will help you handle life during the age of COVID-19.


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Support for the Exercise is Medicine® Initiative is provided by:

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