Research has shown time and again the benefits of physical activity, and especially the benefits of avoiding a sedentary lifestyle. But, for older adults, while it’s obviously better to get the body moving at least a little bit, a new study found that older women in particular might not be moving around enough, with those participating in the study being sedentary for about two-thirds of their day, excluding the time they sleep.
“This is part of an ongoing study, and the first paper to look at the patterns of activity and sedentary behaviors,” said lead author, Eric Shiroma, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, according to HealthDay. “Some research says that sitting for long periods is harmful and the recommendation is that we should get up every 30 minutes, but there’s little hard data available on how much we’re sitting and how often we get up, and how measures such as these affect our health risks.”
The study looked at the amount of sedentary activity in over 7,000 women with an average age of 71. The women carried an accelerometer device with them during every waking moment for seven days, which allowed it to measure the women’s different levels of movement. The researchers found that the women were awake for an average of 15 hours each day. The women spent about 65.5 percent of this time being physically inactive — about 9.7 hours. Breaking from this sedentary phase was measured as making any sort of movement for at least one minute.
A caveat of the study, the researchers couldn’t be sure how the participants were moving. For all they knew, being sedentary could have included standing in one position just as much as it included sitting down, the researchers wrote, according to Reuters. Still, the women were sedentary for an average of 86 periods during their day, while becoming active in short bouts an average of nine times an hour. “Most of us had thought that people were sitting a lot longer, and maybe people who are sitting a lot longer are at greater risk, but we’re going to have to wait and see,” Shiroma told Reuters. “We don’t necessarily know where the threshold is for, ‘How long is sitting too long?’”
According to the National Institutes of Health’s Physical Activity Guidelines, people who are 65 years and older should be getting at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate intensity aerobic activity each week while also getting at least two days of muscle-strengthening exercise. Getting this much physical activity controls weight and reduces the risk for many different types of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and some bone diseases.
But even getting this much physical activity in won’t matter if the rest of the day is spent being sedentary. “Even people who go to the gym every day and run six miles on a treadmill can be at risk for bad outcomes from being sedentary if they spend eight to 10 hours seated at a desk and then watch TV with their spouse after dinner,” Dr. Catherine A. Sarkisian, director of the Los Angeles Community Academic Partnership for Research in Aging Center, told Reuters.
This argument has been echoed through a lot of past research. A 2012 study found that people who claimed to be active spent just as much time sedentary as those who weren’t active. Furthermore, they found that those who were active became about 30 percent less active on days that they exercised, possibly because physical activity encourages more time spent resting.
For older adults, the trick is to figure out how to spend free time, especially if they no longer have to take care of their children or work a nine-to-five job, Dr. Yonette Davis, chief of geriatrics at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City, told HealthDay. “You have to mentally transition yourself when you get to the end of taking care of kids or working. You have to change and find other activities. Tell yourself, ‘This is a different point in my life. I need to look for other outlets of interest now that my kids no longer need me and I’m finished with my job.’ Go out with friends, volunteer, get involved with your church, go back to school. Don’t wind yourself all the way down.”