Use it or lose it – a guide to staying active at home

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Leading physiotherapists concerned that ‘stay at home’ restrictions could exacerbate falls and poor physical function in older people have developed a website to support older Australians to stay active – safely – at home.

Launched by a collaboration of Australian clinicians and physiotherapy researchers from 10 universities, institutes and health services, the Safe Exercise at Home website shares simple functional exercises and offers ideas of safe ways for older people to increase activity levels while at home.

Professor Cathie Sherrington, from the University of Sydney and Sydney Local Health District, said while the group fully supported the restrictions, it was very worried about the unintended and serious consequences for older adults.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to exercise, it really is ‘use it or lose it’,” said Prof. Sherrington of the university’s institute of musculoskeletal health.

“When older people are less active, they risk losing functional abilities and will be at increased risk of falls. All people need to undertake exercise at home during this time. Older people are no exception, but may need extra advice on how to set up safe programs.”

University of Melbourne and Western Health Associate Professor Cathy Said emphasised that it was vital for people who were physically active before the restrictions to try to replicate that level of activity while staying home. 

“Older people may be missing out on their weekly round of golf, bowls or exercise classes, which over a sustained period of time could be really detrimental,” said Assoc. Prof. Said.

“Even if you weren’t doing a regular exercise program before the restrictions, you are likely to be less physically active as you will be missing a lot of incidental exercise. This could be a great time to start a regular exercise program.”

The website, accessible via desktop computer or mobile, provides information and instructional videos at three different levels of function and fitness, as well as tips on staying motivated and safe while exercising at home.

Tips include having someone or a phone nearby when exercising, listening to your body and being sure to follow up on pain or discomfort, and resuming activity and exercise more slowly after minor illnesses such as colds.

Australian guidelines recommend all older people be active every day, doing a range of physical activities that incorporate fitness, strength, balance and flexibility.

A 2019 Cochrane review, led by Professor Cathie Sherrington and combining 108 randomised clinical trials, found strong evidence supporting the important role of exercise in falls prevention.

Clinical physiotherapist Rik Dawson, a director of the Australian Physiotherapy Association and part of the website development team, said many of his patients had been asking for safe ways to exercise at home.

“This website gives them the exercise advice they need with easy-to-follow videos,” Mr Dawson said. “It gives them the choice to start with some simple exercise programs and then allows them to choose more challenging programs to build up their strength and balance.”

The website also includes motivation from older adults who have mastered ‘staying active’ during the pandemic, including 82-year-old Judy, who completes a daily home exercise program, as well as walks with her carer using her walking frame.

“Your attitude will determine how well you do, so try to keep positive, avoid focusing on health problems or discussing them too much and know that you can improve,” said Judy. “It might not be a lot, but if you can get up and down, get dressed and get in and out of cars and move in bed more efficiently, you will enjoy the difference.”

Have you been missing some regular activities? Have you been diligent about substituting other activities to maintain your fitness?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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