Sitting and Disability Risk for Seniors

by Wellness Editor – MH

There’s a good reason why the phrase “couch potato” is considered a pejorative term. People who spend hours on end anchored to their coach generally aren’t in the best of shape, and as a result tend to be in less-than-ideal health. For older adults, however, living an exceptionally sedentary lifestyle might be especially harmful; evidence suggests that sitting has a major impact on seniors’ risk of disability.

Disabilities in the United States

Approximately 56 million Americans are disabled, meaning that they face health-related obstacles when performing everyday tasks. Activities that most people view as routine, such as eating, walking, bathing or getting dressed, become a daily challenge for those living with disabilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common reasons for disability include arthritis, back/spine problems, heart trouble and rheumatism (rheumatism refers to a number of conditions in which the body’s joints, muscles and/or fibrous tissues become stiff, swollen and painful).

Sedentary Lifestyle and the Body’s Health

Between work, commuting, watching television and using computers, most of us spend quite a lot of time sitting down. Though it might seem like a fairly harmless thing to do, medical research has found that sitting could jeopardize the body’s long-term health.

  • A study published in the January 2014 issue of the journal Circulation: Heart Failure linked sitting to heart problems in men. Compared with their more physically active counterparts who sat for two hours or less each day, men who spent at least five hours sitting in a non-work environment were twice as likely to suffer heart failure.
  • The July 21, 2012 issue of The Lancet medical journal included a study examining the relationship between sitting and early deaths. The report concluded that 10 percent of worldwide breast and colon cancers cases could be blamed on a lack of weekly exercise (the benchmark for sufficient exercise was 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week).
  • Australian researchers found that people who spend much of the day sitting were more likely to succumb to an early death. People who sat between 8 and 11 hours per day were 15 percent likelier to die prematurely than those who spent four hours or less sitting. Furthermore, those who sat more than 11 hours each day faced an increased mortality risk of 40 percent.

Aside from the problems mentioned above, a recent study suggests that a lack of physical activity may also increase the risk of disability among seniors. Published in the February 19th, 2014 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, this report tracked nearly 2300 American adults, all of whom were aged sixty and older. Devices known as accelerometers were used to monitor the subjects’ physical activity, as well as how often they sat.

When reviewing their data, the research team noticed that disabilities were far more common among those with sedentary lifestyles. To illustrate their point, the researchers offered a hypothetical comparison between two 70 year old women; one woman sat for twelve hours per day, while the other remained seated for thirteen. This seemingly small difference had a major impact on the subjects’ health; the woman who sat for thirteen hours had a 50 percent greater chance of being disabled. Overall, adults over 60 were found to double their disability risk with every additional hour they spent sitting during the day.

In terms of increasing the chances of disability, the report noted that excessive sitting was nearly as bad as a lack of exercise. Because of this finding, the researchers argued that even older adults who are physically active need to be mindful of their sitting habits. In keeping with this goal, the report suggested that those 60 and older limit the amount of time spent on the following activities:

  • Reading
  • Watching television
  • Talking on the phone
  • Listening to music

Additionally, the report included some recommendations for getting loved ones off the couch. The research team suggested that bingo games, book clubs and quilting groups could all keep older adults active and moving, since these activities usually require participants to actively socialize with others. A little bit of physical activity may prove to be very beneficial for at-risk age groups; the study noted that replacing just a half-hour of daily sitting with light exercise could help older adults and seniors ward off future health problems.

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