Social Distancing vs. Your Health

By now you’re probably immersed in the rituals of Social Distancing —

  • rubbing your hands with holy water sanitizer
  • resorting to the new secret handshake: elbow bumping
  • giving up all your normal social activities
  • Hoarding “Stocking up on” toilet paper
  • Staying 6 feet away from other people
  • hiding in your house all day

It’s that last one that’s the most concerning for older adults’ health. If your normal life involved exercise classes, yoga classes, activities at your local Recreation or Senior Center, bridge, lunch, day trips, knitting groups and the like, you’re left to sit around doing nothing. If you live alone, you’re left to sit around alone doing nothing.

While all of these cancellations and restrictions are supposed to protect you and others from a virus, there are some very real and serious non-viral health risks for older people due to Social Distancing:

  1. Worsening of chronic health conditions. If you have hypertension, heart disease, Type 2 Diabetes and other related chronic conditions, daily exercise is a critical piece of the disease management pie. If you depended on classes, a swimming pool or use of gym equipment for your activity, you’re now out of luck. As the weeks drag on, the ill effects of a sedentary life will add up and impact your chronic disease management.
  2. Worsening of depression and anxiety. Nothing like social isolation, cancellation of all your usual activities and complete lack of exercise to aggravate a tendency to anxiety or depression. Which can lead to self-destructive behaviors like alcohol abuse, overeating and drug use. All of which can also worsen the chronic conditions discussed above.
  3. Loss of muscle mass and fitness. I’m not sure if this isn’t the worst of the 3 problems. It’s certainly the most insidious. You might recognize that your mood is very low, or that your weight is going up, but you don’t see the muscle mass draining away. But draining away it is.

Sarcopenia, or gradual loss of muscle mass, is part of aging, even for adults who are physically active. When older adults are immobilized for any reason at all — illness, injury, circumstances — sarcopenia accelerates, sometimes at alarming rates. Anyone who has experienced a prolonged period of immobility due to an illness knows what I’m talking about. When you’re back on your feet, you realize you’re out of shape. If you do nothing to get back on track, you stay out of shape.

This becomes a vicious cycle. You might have been managing heart disease or Type 2 diabetes or hypertension with a routine of exercise. Now those plans are down the drain. Your fitness deteriorates and exercise starts to take more effort, so you’re less motivated to pursue any activities. Your chronic diseases get worse. You’re even less active. Loss of muscle mass increases. Ironic, considering quarantine is supposed to keep you healthy.

What can you do?

Eating more protein will not help. Only exercise stimulates muscles to maintain mass. If you’re stuck in Social Distancing Hell because your access to exercise has been shut down, you need to find some way to be active. Easier said than done.

Walking outside is great; jogging is great, too, but not always an option for older people. You need access to safe and pleasant places to walk/jog, nice weather and the time to do it. Not everyone has that. Not everyone is comfortable walking outside in cold/wet/windy/extremely hot weather. Icy/snowy sidewalks are a big deterrent in winter because of the risk of falling and breaking something, leading to more immobility. The only bright spot in this mess is that spring is coming, making walking outside more enjoyable.

Same for bicycling, with the added issue of owning a bicycle. And maintaining that bicycle. A bike sitting unused because if has a flat tire you don’t know how to fix isn’t helpful. A bike that is uncomfortable isn’t helpful. And for older adults, balance is a huge issue. If your sense of balance isn’t want it used to be, bike riding outside may not be an option. Again, a fall that leads to a fracture means even more immobility.

You could investigate exercise videos, of which there are many. You can certainly find some that fit your style and level of fitness. The good news: you can exercise to videos in the privacy of your home and weather isn’t a factor. The bad news: this can get old really quickly. Lots of people enjoy the social aspect of exercise classes; working out alone with a video just isn’t the same.

Here’s another tip: don’t stock up on junk food, especially if you tend to overeat due to anxiety and depression. Yes keep quality protein foods in the house and yes include those with meals and snacks. Slightly higher protein intake might help stifle appetite, while low protein intake will worsen muscle loss.

We’re all stuck in this situation, so the best any of us can do is try not to let our health deteriorate. How sad that a strategy allegedly devised to prevent disease can actually make chronic diseases, depression and anxiety worse in the long run.