Dear Doctors: Our mother is 79 years old and in good health. She felt lonely after our father died and moved into an assisted living facility to be near other people. She’s lost a few steps physically, and my sister thinks it’s because her daily chores — like shopping, cooking, and cleaning — are being taken care of. Does it really keep you in shape?
Dear reader: We’ve come to equate maintaining physical fitness with vigorous, focused exercise, but it’s actually much more complex than that. The range of ordinary tasks we perform during the day also plays an important role. When you make a bed, sweep a floor, wash the dishes, cook a meal, or finish a grocery run, you perform a wide range of movements. Something as simple as picking up the mail translates into a set of significant physical actions. It seems unlikely, but even fidgeting confers physical benefits.
Break it down, and during the performance of daily tasks and activities, you stand, lift, reach, bend, walk, twist, balance, and stretch. These are small movements, often made unconsciously, but they play an important role in health and well-being. Taken together, they contribute to strength, flexibility, agility and balance.
Daily routines, which involve countless decisions and calculations, also confer cognitive benefits. No matter how old someone is, our routines improve thinking, learning and judgment. The repetitive nature of many of these tasks can make them feel like a chore. This makes it easy to underestimate their importance. Yet research shows that the type of activity we’re talking about, sometimes called low-intensity movement, is beneficial for physical and mental health, as well as overall well-being. This is especially true for older people.
Your mother made an important decision when she chose to seek companionship by living in a community after your father died. Loneliness can have serious health consequences, including stress, poor sleep, depression, heart problems, and increased susceptibility to chronic disease, and can even lead to premature death. But the services offered in her assisted living facility may inadvertently limit the amount of low-intensity movement she performs each day.
Keep in mind that the grief of losing your husband can also have physical effects. This includes lack of sleep, fatigue, and body aches, all of which can negatively affect movement. If your mother agrees, you can start with an evaluation by her doctor to rule out a medical cause for her failure. If all goes well, you can explore ways to get her to become more active.
It’s understandable that your mother is happy to be freed from chores such as cooking, laundry and household chores. But she can trade those activities for more focused physical exertion. Many assisted living facilities offer exercise classes, both in groups and in the form of individual instruction. They are specifically tailored to the aging body, often with an emphasis on so-called functional fitness. This includes maintaining a healthy body weight, increasing agility, improving balance, and building emotional health. A huge amount of change has just happened in your mother’s life, so remember to be patient while you help her adjust.