While the lifestyle at an assisted living facility can be enticing—promising the comforts of home with fewer responsibilities—all that help may mean missing out on the physical activity you need to stay healthy.
“Often, residents no longer need to make their own meals, walk to the mailbox, or navigate down stairs to do laundry in the basement,” says Margaret Danilovich, an instructor in the department of physical therapy and human movement sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
In addition, a facility’s apartments may not be much larger than 200 square feet. And group exercise classes are often conducted while sitting, to prevent falling.
“In order for older people to stay healthy, they need to continue to remain active,” Danilovich says.
Danilovich helped lead a small pilot study, involving five assisted living residents—who typically averaged 1,680 steps a day—to see if they could push themselves a bit.
The residents, who averaged 87 years old, worked with a physical therapist to climb stairs or walk farther or faster, sometimes with 5-pound leg weights, with the goal of boosting their heart rate. Some of the walking occurred on surfaces, such as grass or wood chips, that challenged balance a bit.
“They had to report that they were working—that they felt that the activity was challenging them, and they were exerting themselves to a hard or a very hard level,” Danilovich says.
After a dozen 30-minute sessions, the participants’ mobility had improved, according to the findings, published in January 2016 in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.
They averaged 850 steps during the 30-minute sessions alone—half the number of steps that they had previously walked in a typical day. (Their total daily walking only averaged 1,970 steps by the end of the study, not enough to be considered statistically significant, perhaps because of the small sample size, the researchers wrote.)
While healthy older adults can often achieve the 10,000 daily steps recommended for their younger counterparts, adults with a disability or a chronic illness might want to shoot for a more modest goal of 6,500 to 8,500 steps, and perhaps less depending upon their condition, according to a 2011 review of studies involving walking.
The participants did significantly reduce their degree of frailty, and their balance improved, even though the exercise wasn’t targeting balance skills directly, Danilovich says.
How to stay active
When asked how they might continue to fit more exercise into their day, participants suggested group walking events or walking five minutes before the start of a book club, for example.
Whatever you try, get up and out as much as possible, Danilovich stresses, whether you live in a facility or at home. Do more activities while standing or moving. If a caregiver helps out by making meals or doing the grocery shopping, tag along.
“In general, what I recommend to my patients is just try to do as much as possible, and be as independent as you possibly can, versus relying on others,” she adds.
Another recently published study, also led by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, provided additional support to the notion that even a bit more activity can provide functional payoff.
That research, which looked at moderate activity in adults with arthritis, found that even achieving one-third of the recommended 150 minutes of weekly activity benefitted adults ages 49 and older.
Those men and women who clocked at least 45 minutes of activity each week were 80 percent more likely to improve or sustain function two years later compared with adults who didn’t, according to the findings, published online Dec. 28, 2016, in Arthritis Care & Research.
Finally, Danilovich stresses that older adults shouldn’t stop doing activities they’ve always enjoyed, such as dancing. “You don’t have to give up anything just because you’re older—you may just need to modify it," she says.
Charlotte Huff, a health and business journalist, has worked on staff at daily newspapers and written numerous articles for national publications, including AARP Bulletin, Medical Economics, Slate and Women’s Health.