How do seniors start to exercise again after two inactive COVID years?

New programs helped some seniors out of their COVID cocoon, but as restrictions lift, experts remind us better fitness means better health.

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Hilary Clark was 89 and fit when the pandemic arrived two years ago.

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She went to three exercise classes a week, regularly walked on the treadmill, and had been taught at an early age to be active by her phys-ed-teacher mother.

When most fitness classes and social activities were shut down in spring 2020, she switched to daily walks around the block near her West Vancouver home, a routine that got difficult after she had a fall and had to start using a cane.

It was a poor physical replacement for her previous exercise regimen, and it also left her feeling dispirited.

But this Thursday, as the pandemic restrictions are lifting in B.C., Clark attended her first “rehabilitation fitness class,” where her goal is to get back on the treadmill and regain some of her previous vigour.

“I’m hoping, that with the rehabilitation class at the senior centre in West Vancouver, that I will be able to get some of my muscular level back again,” said Clark, who is now 91.

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She will also be working out with other people during the in-person class, something she feels comfortable about because she will wear a mask, is fully vaccinated, and will sign up for B.C.’s fourth shot, which this week was announced for people over 70 and those with compromised immune systems.

“Of course, the key is not only keeping the body alive, but keeping the mind alive,” added Clark, who has returned to attending ukulele class, choir practices and church fundraisers.

While some seniors told Postmedia their fitness levels had increased during the pandemic, many experts say most older people got less exercise and less socialization.

And a Simon Fraser University study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, found older adults who were more sedentary and secluded during the pandemic had poorer mental health outcomes. It concluded that it is important to plan on how to boost social and physical activity before and during future lockdowns.

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Dr. Grace Park, Fraser Health’s regional medical director for home and community health, said there were a large number of seniors unable to continue with their regular activities, and worried that could affect their physical and mental health. In an effort to address this, she created a program based on the United Kingdom’s “social prescribing” system, in which patients are prescribed access to community services, rather than medicine.

Dr. Grace Park, Fraser Health’s Regional Medical Director of Home and Community Health.
Dr. Grace Park, Fraser Health’s Regional Medical Director of Home and Community Health. Photo by John C. Watson/Imagemaker Photographic Studio/Fraser Health /Fraser Health

In Fraser Health, staff identify seniors who could benefit from better fitness or more interaction with other people, Park said, and then link them with one of 10 “connectors” employed by non-profit agencies that receive funding from the United Way to help with the program.

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“Then the connector will call the patient, and often speak with the family caregivers as well, to find out what makes them socially isolated. And then set small goals for them to try to get out to a community activity, whether it’s an exercise activity, or supporting them for food security, or whether it’s financial support they need,” said Park, who researches frailty in older people.

Fraser Health has handed out at least 150 of these “wellness prescriptions” to seniors since the program began in September 2020. Some participants have thrived, going from a wheelchair to using a walker and then walking independently again, said Park, who is also a family physician in White Rock.

Since seniors must be wary that they are statistically at higher risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19, Park said that wearing masks, social distancing and keeping up with vaccinations are important precautions, as well as choosing outdoor activities when possible or ensuring that indoor fitness spaces are well ventilated.

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Disconnection from community activities during the pandemic was even more pronounced for older residents who don’t speak English and who struggle with the internet or email, said Tarana Kaur, who created the program TAPS, or Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors, in early 2020 for Punjabi-speaking seniors. The program is funded by DiverseCity Community Resources Society, which helps immigrants and other newcomers who move to Surrey, Langley, Delta and White Rock.

TAPS staff located isolated seniors through gurdwaras, Punjabi-language radio programs, and the seniors’ helpline BC211, and offered them wellness calls, group calls to play games or music, lessons on learning how to use a computer, and help with meals and grocery shopping. There were also programs, at first on Zoom and later in-person as restrictions were lifted, that included yoga and other exercise classes, art and music therapy, and medical information about COVID-19 translated into Punjabi or Arabic, said Kaur.

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“We were getting seniors who had no one, they were single. Their kids were not with them. Many of them lost very close loved ones during COVID,” said Kaur, adding the outreach programs made them healthier and happier.

“Most of them say they have got their new lifestyle, because they were so totally isolated. The language barrier has been a big issue. With these therapeutic programs, with the support of our recreation activities, they feel included. They feel there is some motivation to do something more in life.”

Tarana Kaur, program coordinator for TAPS, with Sawinder Plaiya (centre) and Jagdish Hallen. TAPS, which stands for Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors), is funded by DiverseCity Community Resources Society in Surrey.
Tarana Kaur, program coordinator for TAPS, with Sawinder Plaiya (centre) and Jagdish Hallen. TAPS, which stands for Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors), is funded by DiverseCity Community Resources Society in Surrey. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

TAPS has so far working with 80 seniors, has expanded its language services to now include Arabic, and has funding until next March.

Jagdish Hallen, 73, cared for her mother but became increasingly isolated during the pandemic after her mother died. TAPS threw a lifeline to the Surrey senior, improving her energy and mood through things like yoga and painting sessions.

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“First of all, in the pandemic, all people are sad. And this program gave us so much happiness,” Hallen said. “If there was no (TAPS) classes, we can’t go out, maybe we have depression, maybe we freak out. But this is really, really good to help us.”

Before joining TAPS in the fall of 2020, 75-year-old Sawinder Playia’s blood pressure was high and her health was deteriorating, and she was isolated alone in her house after her husband, who has Alzheimer’s, had to be moved to a supported home.

“Now she says I am improving, my health is improving. I am mentally, physically also feeling so better and feeling happy,” Kaur said, translating for the Punjabi-speaking Playia. “She feels she’s totally different. She has a happy way of living.”

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Nic Slater, 66, and his wife Vivian Grace, 62, walk near their Ladner home.
Nic Slater, 66, and his wife Vivian Grace, 62, walk near their Ladner home. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

Some local seniors took to the outdoors to keep up their physical and mental strength during the pandemic. Nic Slater, 66, and his wife began exercising daily, either with long bike rides or walking along the dike outside their Ladner home.

Teresa David, 70, has a regular walking group in Port Moody that meets every day, rain or shine. “Our walking has kept us grounded and (we) recognized when one or the other were having a difficult day, especially when gathering with friends and family was not possible.”

When the Britannia community centre gym closed, Lee Turner, 75, got her exercise by walking outside, even though the former long-distance runner, who has had both knees replaced, had to use a walker to get around.

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“Now that restrictions are being lifted, I will continue to do all I can to stay safe. I will do my workout at home only as I have all the equipment I need. I will wear my KN-95 mask when going out and stay out of crowded places,” Turner said. “COVID will not stop me from being active as exercise is so beneficial and keeps me sane, too.”

In 2010, when Lee Turner was 63, she ran the CIBC Run for the Cure race in Vancouver.
In 2010, when Lee Turner was 63, she ran the CIBC Run for the Cure race in Vancouver. Photo by Ian Smith /PNG

Claudette Picot, though, said she has exercised less after her local chair-fit classes were cancelled, and that advanced arthritis in her knees made walking difficult.

The classes have recently restarted, but the 86-year-old still has “COVID phobia” and is eager to get her fourth shot.

Seniors who reduced their movements over the last two years will need to relearn those habits as restrictions lift, while also keeping themselves safe from the lingering presence of COVID, said Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a UBC physical therapy professor who studies the disease’s affect on the brain.

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“It is about reinstating a habit, and we do know people of all ages already have a difficult time in engaging in regular physical activity as they should,” Liu-Ambrose said.

Her own parents, who are close to 90, used to workout regularly at their local YMCA, but when the gym and pool closed they stopped going, losing not just their fitness routines but also the friends they saw in this comfortable environment.

Liu-Ambrose directs Vancouver General Hospital’s fall-prevention clinic, and a survey of the patients found they were more sedentary during the pandemic, getting out less to do even basic activities such as grocery shopping or walking in the neighbourhood. This is a problem because regular mobility helps to minimize the progression of some chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, she said.

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“There’s a lot of concern globally that with the pandemic-induced restrictions on one’s physical activity, that we’re probably going to see more increases in chronic conditions,” Liu-Ambrose added.

Her advice to seniors is to set achievable goals to increase exercise again, perhaps beginning with light outdoor activities now that the spring weather is here.

“You do want to set yourself up for success, so think about small bites and small steps toward that,” she said. “When there’s too many changes, it just can feel a little bit overwhelming, and then we just don’t want to pursue it.”

Teresa Liu-Ambrose is a UBC physical therapy professor.
Teresa Liu-Ambrose is a UBC physical therapy professor. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

UBC kinesiology professor Mark Beauchamp was involved in two studies during the pandemic that looked at whether exercise would improve feelings of depression among people who were not very active, one looking at seniors and the other at people aged 16 to 64. The studies found exercise did improve the mental health of the younger group, but didn’t have as conclusive an effect on the older age group.

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He said one way to interpret these results is that “the older adult segment of society have actually fared quite well, relative to younger adults,” potentially because their work, parenting and school lives were less disrupted by COVID than for younger generations. But, he stressed, exercise has physical and mental benefits for all ages, and encourages people to be as active as possible within their comfort levels as fewer masks are worn and places get more crowded.

“I don’t think any of us can foresee the exact trajectories of where this (pandemic) is going, but certainly in B.C. as we move into spring, and as the weather gets better, when there are just more opportunities to get outside, it’s more appealing to be active and walking with one’s friends.”

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