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Want a Healthier, Happier Old Age? Get Moving

MONDAY, July 10, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- The couch potato life may not be a happy one.

When older adults become more sedentary, their overall quality of life takes a hit, new research cautions.

Sitting still is your enemy, the study suggests. Even slow walking can help improve your mental and physical health, say the British researchers who tracked more than 1,400 adults age 60 and up.

“We set off to look at whether people who reduced their physical activity levels or increased their sitting time in their older years had poorer quality of life later on,” said study lead author Dr. Dharani Yerrakalva.

The answer to both questions was yes, said Yerrakalva, a doctoral fellow with the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge.

This really matters, she and her colleagues said, noting prior research suggests that as quality of life worsens, the risk for hospitalization goes up. So too does the risk for a premature death.

Connie Diekman is a food and nutrition consultant and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She said the findings serve as a “strong confirmation of what most health organizations recommend: Stay physically active to keep the body and mind healthy.”

“Regular activity helps people feel vital, strong and anxious to keep enjoying life,” said Diekman, who was not part of the study.

There are several ways in which improvements in our physical behaviors might help maintain a better quality of life, Yerrakalva noted. “For example, more physical activity reduces pain in common conditions such as osteoarthritis. And we know that being more physically active improves muscle strength, which allows older adults to continue to care for themselves,” she said.

“Similarly, depression and anxiety are linked to quality of life, and can be improved by being more active and less sedentary,” Yerrakalva added.

Researchers zeroed in on 1,433 English adults who were originally enrolled in a cancer study. They tracked activity routines and evaluated quality of life, including the ability to move about, to take care of oneself and to engage in basic everyday activities. They also noted overall pain levels and mood.

Guidelines in the United States and United Kingdom recommend that adults clock at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activity a week.

Activity levels and health assessments were conducted at the time of enrollment, at some point between 2006 and 2011. To measure activity, participants wore accelerometers on their hip for one week.

Quality of life was assessed on the basis of a 0 to 1 score, with 0 signifying the worst and 1 indicating the best.

Similar evaluations were conducted six years later, on average. At that point, men and women were spending about 24 fewer minutes each day (on average) engaged in either moderate or vigorous physical activity.

During the same time frame, inactivity levels shot up roughly 33 minutes a day among men and 38 minutes a day among women.

Investigators determined that for every 15-minute drop in activity, quality of life was shaved nearly in half.

Investigators similarly linked increasing sedentary behavior to worsening quality of life. For every additional 15 minutes seniors spent sitting -- whether watching TV or reading -- quality of life scores fell an average of 0.18.

And the team found that seniors who increased their activity levels -- while cutting down on couch potato time -- ended up with a higher quality of life by the study’s end.

Adding just one hour of activity to a senior’s daily routine was associated with a significant boost in quality of life scores.

Even upping engagement in relatively light activities -- such as slow walking -- was helpful, Yerrakalva said, though boosting more moderate-to-vigorous exercises, like brisk walking, produced the most payoff.

But before investing in a pickleball paddle or gym membership, talk to your doctor, said Diekman. “Make sure you check with your physician to learn if there are any limitations to activity due to your personal health status," she advised. After that, “get moving."

“If you are just getting back into activity, start slowly, five minutes a day,” said Diekman. “Then slowly build, if your physician approves it, to the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week.”

And “if you can't get to the 150 minutes per week, whatever you can do is better than sitting on the couch,” she stressed.

The findings were published recently in Health and Quality of Life Outcomes.

More information

There's more on seniors and activity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Dharani Yerrakalva, MBBS, MPhil, National Institute for Health and Care Research doctoral fellow, School of Clinical Medicine, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, LD, FADA, FAND, food and nutrition consultant and former president, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, June 22, 2023

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