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If You’re Concerned About an Aging Parent’s Sedentary Lifestyle, Here Are Some Ways You Can Encourage Them to Get More Active

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Just about every article we read about healthy aging emphasizes the need for older people to stay active. Even a minimal level of physical activity – walking, gardening, stretching – helps aging adults live longer and healthier lives. By contrast, a lifestyle of inactivity often turns into a downward spiral of physical and emotional problems that can contribute to isolation, depression, cardiovascular problems, and cognitive decline.

What’s a concerned son or daughter to do if mom or dad won’t get up from the recliner and engage in even a modest amount of physical activity? We found a few helpful answers in this recent article from NextAvenue. Freelance writer Dana Shavin describes the struggle she faces with her own octogenarian mother-in-law with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Shavin offers some good background information on the critical importance of staying active, and she provides some suggestions that just might help you get an aging loved one off the couch and back into the swing of things.

Efforts to Encourage a Sedentary Mom Fall on Deaf Ears

Shavin is, by any standard, a person who cares about her health. While not compulsive, she does not ignore her body, understanding that a bit of exercise every day goes a long way for overall health. This makes it all the more difficult to see how her 80-year-old mother-in-law struggles with physical activity.

“She recently moved to a small apartment in the town where we live,” Shavin laments in her NextAvenue article, “and aside from weekly trips to Wal-Mart and her doctors, she spends all day and evening in front of her television. But,” she adds, “no amount of encouragement from us — to take a walk or find an activity outside of her home — has had any effect, other than to make her angry.”

Lack of Movement Contributes to a Range of Problems

Perhaps this wouldn’t be as big of an issue if it weren’t for the burgeoning list of health problems that her mother-in-law complains about—lack of energy, mobility issues, poor circulation—all of which can be addressed with moderate exercise. “But my mother-in-law is not alone,” Shavin says. “Only 39 percent of people over 65 meet the recommended amount of activity each week, and that percentage decreases as age increases. The average person sits 12 hours a day. As might be expected, there is a strong relationship between how much time adults spend being sedentary and the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and death.”

The definition of “sedentary” can vary from person to person, but the general rule is that it’s any behavior that requires “a low level of energy expenditure”, such as sitting, lying down, watching TV, using a computer, reading, and similar types of habitual inactivity. Sedentary behavior may be acceptable now and then, but according to the Department of Health and Human Services, if we spend less than 20 minutes every day moving with “moderate intensity”—walking, biking, swimming, dancing, and the like—it can become a real problem.

It’s Not Your Fault If You Want to Rest

As the NextAvenue article explains, we come by the desire to relax naturally. Our ancestors would have been hunter-gatherers who spent much of their time resting in between foraging sessions. Energy conservation is part of our genetic makeup. Unfortunately, the landscape looks a little different now. We don’t have to hunt and gather our food, so conserving energy is less necessary. We eat more, we eat worse (think processed foods), and we relax just as much. This is a recipe for health consequences.

“When we don’t move enough, our muscles waste away and bone repair slows,” Shavin explains. “Which means the problem of not moving compounds: the less we move, the less we want to move.” 

It’s no secret that exercise is a key part of staying healthy into old age. Shavin writes: “In addition to keeping our bones and muscles strong, regular physical activity (even gentle physical activity) has been shown to increase life expectancy; reduce our risk of contracting chronic diseases including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke; improve our balance; help us manage our weight and lower our risk of depression.” Minimizing time sitting idle can also reduce back and neck pain and stimulate both our physical and mental health, which inevitably lowers healthcare costs.

What Should You (Realistically) Aim For?

So, where do you start? “The bottom line is simple,” says Shavin. “Avoid inactivity.”

Even if you aren’t a big fan of gyms or formal exercise classes, there are tons of other ways to get moving. Walking—either outdoors or inside at a mall—is a great way to begin. For a little more challenge, there’s hiking, biking, or swimming. Yard work and gardening count, and so does lifting those heavy grocery bags! Push-ups, sit-ups, and certain types of at-home yoga (YouTube has lots of video-based yoga classes) can all help with strength and conditioning for varying levels of ability.

As far as goals, the CDC gives us some figures to shoot for. Shavin writes, “According to the CDC, older adults (which they define as 65 or older) should strive to engage in 2 1/2 to five hours a week of moderate-intensity activity, or 1 1/4 hours to 2 1/2 hours a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. This includes adults with chronic diseases or disabilities (if possible).”

At the minimum, older adults should try to get about 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week, and mixing that up between aerobic movement—getting your heart pumping—and strength training, according to your level of ability. (Note: Do be sure to check with your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen, especially if you’ve been sedentary for a while.)

What If There’s a Way, But Not a Will?

There’s a big difference between knowing that exercise is good for you and actually doing it. Shavin’s concerns about her mother-in-law focus mainly on the older woman’s resistance to the very idea of exercising. “My mother-in-law will tell you that she moves plenty, as evidenced by the fact that she is tired at the end of the day,” Shavin says. “The irony is that increased movement would likely help her feel less tired.”

The National Institutes of Health offers a few ideas for encouraging a resistant person to exercise:

  • If 30 minutes straight seems like too much, encourage breaking that into three 10-minute chunks of exercise.
  • Every little bit helps, so you could park further away from your destination or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Finding someone to exercise with can add both accountability and companionship, and doing activities as a family can be rewarding as well as healthy.
  • Try a class that interests you, such as dance, yoga, a sport like pickleball, or even kickboxing!
  • And finally, turn your exercise into a game by getting a sports watch to set and meet goals.

The Bottom Line

We know exercise is good for us, and that makes it all the harder to watch someone we love resist movement and sit sedentary every day. “The adults in our life are free to make their own decisions,” Shavin says, “and attempts to coerce them into doing what we think they should do can backfire, making someone who was resistant to making better health choices dig their heels in more.”

We can’t force anyone to change, but we can be armed with information and a certain level of persuasiveness. It may be as simple as encouraging a relative or loved one to get more involved with something they enjoy. No matter what we do, approaching with care is always a step in the right direction. And hopefully each step you take will encourage your loved one to get up off the couch to take some of their own.  

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(originally reported at

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