Our bodies deteriorate with age. It's just a fact of life: Your hearing becomes less sensitive. Your vision becomes less sharp. Your bones weaken. You lose muscle. But did you know most of the negative changes we call aging have little to do with how many years we've been alive?
Although certain abilities — such as hearing and vision — unavoidably diminish with time, other capabilities fade because of physical inactivity. That's called pathogenic aging. Insulin sensitivity, physical fitness, muscle strength and overall balance are just a few examples.
If you were to take a 30-year-old and restrict her physical activity, she would decline in all the same areas. And it would be considered harmful. But many family and friends, with the best of intentions, limit the physical activity of older adults in the name of being helpful. They stop seniors for doing chores, walking stairs, going outdoors or doing strenuous work.
Here are three ways helpful people can hurt the health of an older adult:
Why make grandpa walk to his car, drive to the store, push a cart down the aisles, carry his groceries and put them away when he gets home? Because he can!
Think of all the muscles and skills developed while running errands and performing chores. Walking to the car exercises legs and develops balance. Driving to the store trains reflexes and sharpens the mind. Pushing a cart reinforces leg and core strength. Carrying groceries works the arms, and putting them away improves range of motion.
When we insist on helping an older adult perform actions he or she is perfectly capable of doing, we actually hurt that person by contributing to a decline in functional fitness. A helping hand could be robbing grandpa of his independence.
Increased chance of disease
Cognitive decline, diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease all are associated with getting older. People generally just accept these diseases as a part of aging, but they're more a part of a sedentary lifestyle. When physical activity takes a little more effort, older adults often are encouraged to take it easy and let their loved ones handle things. But a quick look at research shows the toll of living an inactive life:
Increased chance of dementia
Insulin resistance, the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes
Increased risk of colon and breast cancer
Higher rate of heart attack and stroke
That doesn't mean every senior needs to become a marathon runner or bodybuilder. Simple activities, such as household chores or regular strolls, can steer an older adult clear of a sedentary lifestyle's dangers. But limiting a senior's activities — even in the name of being helpful — often backfires by increasing the chance of disease.
The obvious solution to grandma's low energy is to let her rest, right? Not necessarily.
Exercise and activity lead to better quality sleep, and better quality sleep does more for energy levels than hours spent awake and inactive. Plus, getting up and moving around boosts the metabolism, which helps elevate energy levels.
If you or an older adult you know does experience fatigue that interferes with normal daily activity, visiting a doctor may help you pinpoint the source of the fatigue. Don't assume it's simply a part of aging.
What you can do to help
Instead of trying to do everything for an older friend or relative, try supporting his or her efforts to stay active — whether it's getting daily exercise or just completing household chores. Ask how you can help increase his or her activity, instead of reducing it with well-intentioned favors.
If you know of a senior who is interested in getting fit or just getting out of the house more often, point her toward programs such as SilverSneakers that are designed for older adults and include free fitness center or health club access.
Edison's Smart Fitness is a North Myrtle Beach gym that accepts the Healthways Silver Sneakers program along with the Healthways Prime program. Contact your healthcare provider for details and eligibility.
Let's take care of our seniors, North Myrtle Beach!