The pandemic has made many seniors less active

Not only gyms, yoga studios, swimming pools, adult day programs, community and senior centers were all closed for extended periods of time; many older people also did less common chores and errands and may have skipped recreational pastimes.

“If you limit visits to the grocery store or have groceries delivered, or don’t visit or help your grandkids, if you don’t meet friends at a coffee shop — they all require some level of physical activity,” said Dr. Beauchamp.

Many elderly people did less travel or personal shopping; religious services, family gatherings and medical appointments went online. “Imagine how much activity we do without even thinking about it,” said Dr. Hoffman. If that changes substantially, “it adds up in six or nine months, then you have a loss of balance or muscle strength, leading to more trips and falls.”

Differences in health and income also seem to play a role, with reduced physical fitness and mobility being reported more often in both countries by respondents in low income categories, with fair or poor health or with multiple chronic conditions.

“Relatively healthy older adults have adequate reserve if they reduce activity,” said Neil Alexander, a geriatrician at the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs who was not involved in the study. “High-risk people can drive these numbers.”

dr. Alexander also pointed out that early in the pandemic, older patients had less access to rehabilitation and other services. “It was difficult to get people in the house for occupational therapy and physical therapy,” he said. “The support services to keep people mobile and functioning were disrupted.” Now, a labor shortage could have a similar effect, he noted.

Physical functioning is the key to independent living – the future envisioned by the vast majority of older people. Loss of mobility and function in a significant portion of the senior population can lead to increasing disability, increased need for eventual long-term care, and increased Medicare and Medicaid costs.

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