The One Lifestyle Seniors Should Avoid

By Etta Hornsteiner
seniors resting

“I have nothing to do, and all day to do it!”

That’s how my 80-something-year-old neighbor used to respond from his porch whenever I asked him what he had planned for the day. At first, I thought he was being witty; then, as time passed, I realized he was lamenting what his life had become.

Not so long before, he used to begin each day with a 20-minute roundtrip walk to the convenience store to purchase the two dailies. He would return with his newspapers and sit on his porch and read every story. When he was done reading, he would walk to another convenience store operated by his friend, discussing the news he had read and offering sage analysis and commentary. In the afternoon, at precisely three o’clock, he would strut onto his porch and take his seat to watch the children as they returned from school and his neighbors as we returned from work.

Saturday was shopping day and a reason to travel to the big grocery store about three miles away. His niece faithfully took him every time. On Sunday mornings, just as the sun was rising, he could be seen standing at his gate, dapper in a suit and matching derby hat, as he waited for the bus that would take him to six o’clock Mass.

Then, his eyesight began to fail. He had trouble reading the newspapers, so he stopped buying them. Since he didn’t buy the papers anymore, he stopped walking to the convenience stores. He began to spend his days alone playing solitaire and watching television from his bedside. His niece, who drove him to the grocery store, eventually took over his shopping. But, dapper as ever, he continued to take the bus to early morning Mass.

A builder for more than sixty years, he was used to moving and loved to move, especially early in the morning. He didn’t like sitting around: “It makes you sick,” he used to say. But what else could he do now?

Research is now showing that what my neighbor knew intuitively is indeed true: too much sitting is bad for your health, especially as you grow older.

Sitting is a sedentary behavior. Sedentary behavior is not merely the lack of physical activity. It is “a cluster of behaviors” that include sitting (nonexercising), reclining, and lying down (posture), where little energy is being expended.

There are four areas in our life we should evaluate for sedentary behavior:

  • household: activities required to maintain one’s home, such as indoor chores and yard work;
  • leisure time: any activity that is done for personal enjoyment, i.e., in non-work time unrelated to household activities;
  • transport: activities associated with public transportation, active transportation and driving;
  • occupation: activities related to paid and unpaid work such as volunteering.

Sedentary behavior is an important factor to consider in the health of older adults because the majority of older adults lead a sedentary lifestyle. According to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “almost 60% of older adults reported sitting for more than 4 h per day, 65% sit in front of a screen for more than 3 h daily and over 55% report watching more than 2 h of TV. However, when measured objectively in a small survey, it was found that 67% of the older population were sedentary for more than 8.5 h daily.”

We know that lack of exercise or physical activity has been associated with chronic disease and can lead to poor health. But a sedentary lifestyle can also lead to ill health, especially in older adults.

Why the sedentary lifestyle is harmful

Why should a sedentary lifestyle lead to ill health? After all, isn’t this lifestyle the benefit of living in an advanced society? I mean, thank goodness we don’t have to cut wood for fire or heat or cooking: we simply adjust the thermostat or turn on the electric stove.

We don’t have to stand at the tub or go down to the riverbank to wash our clothes by hand: we simply load them into the washer and set the cycle.

We don’t have to walk or saddle up a horse to get to market: we jump in our cars or ride the subway or hail a taxi or call Uber.

We don’t have to go to the theater or the public square to find entertainment: we turn on our television sets or computers and get comfortable on the couch. We don’t even have to get up to change the channels: Alexa® can do that for us at the sound of our voice.

Modern life has progressed to the level where to enjoy its comforts is to enjoy a sedentary life, except for persons who might be sedentary because of some physical disability or being in residential care. The comforts that we fully expect to enjoy from living in a developed society encourage a sedentary lifestyle. Some might argue that humans are living longer than our ancestors because of this lifestyle. The average person in nineteenth-century, for example, could expect to live to age 40 years; in 2014 the average life expectancy was 71.5 years. However, Dr. Kelly Traver explains, our ancestors did not reach the maximum human life span because of acute events such as trauma and infection.

In the last hundred years, though, amazing strides in medical technology and public health have greatly reduced the death rates from such events. The major cause of early death in humans is now more often from self-inflicted suboptimal lifestyle behaviors.

Sedentary behavior is one of those “suboptimal lifestyle behaviors.” The sedentary lifestyle can lead to overweight, obesity and associated metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. In fact, a 2018 study evaluating the evidence on sitting, smoking, and health found that excessive sitting time almost doubles the risk of type 2 diabetes and increases incidence and mortality risk associated with other common chronic diseases by approximately 10% to 20%. The research also found that sitting is associated with higher risk of depression and poorer physical health-related quality of life.

Tips to avoid a sedentary lifestyle

Sedentary activities are necessary from time to time to allow one’s body to rest, rejuvenate, or recover from a physical illness. But if you want to age successfully, you should avoid a lifestyle where your leisure time, household activities, transportation modes, and occupation cause you to spend lots of time sitting (nonexercising), reclining, and lying down (posture). Here are some things you can do to avoid a sedentary lifestyle.man walking to avoid sedentary lifestyle

  • Create times and reasons to get up and take walking breaks during leisure time, household activities, and work.

An experiment was conducted of sixty adults age 65 to 79 who spent 7.5 hours doing typical day-to-day sedentary activities such as reading or watching TV. Blood samples were taken intermittently throughout the experiment, and participants were given two meals. Two groups of participants took a break from sitting every half hour by either standing in place or by walking at a comfortable pace for five minutes. A third group remained seated for the majority of the experiment.

The older adults who took walking breaks showed healthier metabolic responses throughout the day, including lower insulin and glucose responses, reduced insulin resistance, lower systolic blood pressure, and less daytime sleepiness than the sitting group. There were no significant differences in metabolic outcomes between the sitting group and the standing group.

  • Make taking care of a garden a regular part of your life.
  • If you are retired, volunteer or increase the number of hours you volunteer.

Adult care facilities can also help older adults spend less time sitting or reclining as a part of their daily life. A Canadian study published in AIMS Public Health suggests the following actions:

  • Keep residents informed of the leisure and physical activities programs that are available to them, such as fitness classes.
  • Require that patients, residents participate in physical activities as part of their physical health treatment; for example, aqua therapy to manage chronic back pain.
  • Be mindful of the type of activities that can discourage sedentary behavior and encourage physical activity in older adults. These are activities that provide
    • enjoyment
    • companionship
    • mental stimulation, and
    • motivation
  • Be aware of the main reasons seniors tend to lead sedentary lives:
    • physical health prevents them from moving at will or to great lengths;
    • aging attitudes promote sedentary behavior among seniors and older adults;
    • lack of motivation; depression;
    • lack of companionship, someone with whom to share experiences;
    • unaware of fitness classes at senior centers, community centers, etc.;
    • financial cost of fitness programs. Some seniors, especially those who are retired and on fixed income, are unable to afford fitness programs at centers.
    • social attitudes toward aging. For example: some seniors do not want to “be part of a group called Senior Citizens…it should be just, plus fifty-five plus club or, you know Zoomers club.”
    • cultural attitudes and feelings of nonacceptance outside of their age group;
    • enjoyment and mental stimulation from sedentary behaviors, such as knitting, solving puzzles, reading.

    Local governments, too, can help older adults lead more active lives.

    • Provide reliable and safe public transportation so that seniors can travel with relative ease for leisure, work or household duties.

    It’s worth the effort

    If you want to age well, you must avoid a sedentary lifestyle and incorporate physical activity in your life. According to Rowe and Kahn, to age successfully is to meet three criteria: (a) absence of disease, disability, and risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking, or obesity; (b) maintaining physical and mental functioning; and (c) active engagement with life.  An active lifestyle, not a sedentary one, helps you to pursue these goals and enjoy the comforts of life as you age.

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