Inactive lifestyles and periods of prolonged sitting have been named as significant contributors to climbing rates of obesity and chronic illness in America. Prolonged sitting is defined as a period of inactivity for more than two hours at a time. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, older adults spend nearly two-thirds of their awake time—nearly ten hours—sitting.

The Health Implications of Sitting for the Elderly

Physical inactivity tops the list of things that can age you. Analysis of 22 studies on sedentary behavior among adults age 60 and older reveals that the average older adult spends 65 to 80 percent of their waking hours sitting, reclining, lying down or participating in other low-energy activities.

Apart from a lack of exercise, the mere act of being sedentary comes with many health implications. Some of the more startling statistics to arise from research on the topic include:

  • Every single hour of TV watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer's life expectancy by an average of 21.8 minutes, according to a 2008 University of Queensland study.
  • A study published in the medical journal Diabetologia found that, even if they exercise regularly, people who spend a significant portion of their day sitting down experience a 49 percent increase in their overall risk of death. Their risk of diabetes and cardiovascular events (stroke and heart attack) also increases by 112 percent and 147 percent respectively.
  • Another study concluded that repeated exposure to sitting in daily life is negatively associated with femoral bone mineral density in older women. Bone health is important for preventing fractures and falls, which can be serious and even fatal for older adults.

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The Benefits of Minimizing Sitting Time

While older adults tend to be more sedentary as they age, it’s also important for family caregivers to be mindful of how much time they spend sitting versus being physically active. Regardless of age, studies show that regular physical activity can decrease the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Exercise can keep some of the physical effects of aging at bay by strengthening muscles and bones, enhancing balance, easing arthritis pain and helping a person maintain a healthy weight. The increased blood flow to the brain that occurs as a result of physical activity can keep a senior's brain sharper and may also decrease symptoms of depression. These advantages have been shown to hold true, even for people in their 80s and 90s.

How Seniors and Caregivers Can Be More Active

Unfortunately, sticking to a consistent schedule of physical exercise is often difficult for caregivers and seniors. Arthritis and other mobility problems can make moving around painful and risky for older adults. Time is another limiting factor, especially for caregivers who are struggling to balance their own lives with caring for an elder.

Even when you can find the time and energy to be active, it may be hard to convince your loved one to join you. Fear, pain and fatigue can all play a role in contributing to an elder's reluctance to exercise, so you may need to get creative when searching for ways to incorporate physical fitness into a resistant loved one's regular routine.

Start small and work your way up to more challenging activities or formal exercise programs that have been approved by your loved one’s physician. Fortunately, research shows that just limiting the duration and frequency of bouts of sedentary behavior can have health benefits. Simply encouraging your loved one (and reminding yourself) to take regular breaks from sitting while watching TV or working on the computer can improve health outcomes. Getting up every hour or so to stand, walk slowly around one’s immediate environment or perform light intensity activities of daily living (ADLs) for a few minutes is shown to have beneficial effects on cardio-metabolic health.

The act of getting out of a chair, called the sit-to-stand (STS) transition, is a basic component of mobility that, when done more frequently, can improve a senior’s muscle strength and minimize activity limitations. Research suggests that increasing STS activity with proper supervision and assistance as needed is a reasonable exercise goal for many inactive seniors. Sit-to-stand exercises are commonly used in physical therapy regimens since this ability is crucial for safe transfers in and out of a car, on and off the toilet, and getting in and out of bed.

Older adults who have limited mobility or use a wheelchair face even greater challenges when it comes to minimizing sedentary behavior and getting adequate physical activity. Fortunately, there are seated exercises seniors can do to strengthen their core, upper body and leg muscles. A Google search for seated workout routines and wheelchair exercises for seniors will provide videos and descriptions of cardio and strength training workouts. Physical therapists and personal trainers who have experience working with seniors and individuals with disabilities can also recommend appropriate fitness programming.

Caregiver Tips for Increasing a Senior’s Activity Levels

On the Caregiver Forum, AgingCare members have shared the following tips and ideas for keeping yourself and your loved one moving:

  • “Spend at least 15 minutes of the day in the sun and fresh air when possible. Take a walk around the yard or the neighborhood.”
  • “Tai chi and waltzing are great. Mom loves waltzing to music from the big band era.”
  • “A stationary bike can help keep arthritic knees loose, which also prevents dangerous ‘shuffling’ of feet that can make a senior trip while walking.”
  • “Mom works out in the yard, watering and pulling weeds. It is one of the few things in life she enjoys doing anymore. You don't need to do anything exotic; sometimes the simplest things work best.”
  • “Buy some workout DVDs—I like Zumba—and invite your loved one to join in as well.”
  • “There is a program on TV and on video called ‘Sit and Be Fit’ for anyone who can't exercise while standing. It would be a good place for a sedentary elderly person to start, or maybe for after an injury or illness.”
  • “Look for an activity your loved one would enjoy doing with you that you can call something else even though you know it's really ‘exercise.’ Dancing, birdwatching and walking the dog are the activities I use.”

If you find an activity that appeals to both of you, then you can do it together and enjoy the protective health benefits that come with being active and social.

What are some of your go-to senior exercise strategies?

Sources: How Sedentary are Older People? A Systematic Review of the Amount of Sedentary Behavior (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25387160); Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23007179); Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00125-012-2677-z); Associations between objectively-measured sedentary behaviour and physical activity with bone mineral density in adults and older adults, the NHANES study (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S8756328214001446); Too much sitting – A health hazard (https://www.diabetesresearchclinicalpractice.com/article/S0168-8227(12)00208-2/fulltext); Daily sit-to-stands performed by adults: a systematic review (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4395748/)