Restricting the activities of older people in COVID-19 lockdowns may have long-term implications for healthcare services

Friday 12 August 2022

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A study by Coventry University’s Centre for Sports, Exercise and Life Sciences found that increased time spent sitting or staying still over the course of the pandemic may have contributed to a drop in self-reported physical function in older people.

That could then lead to a ‘vicious cycle’ that puts more strain on the NHS and social care services.

The study, led by Dr Darren Richardson from Coventry University, and conducted alongside Professor Tony Myers of Newman University, looked at 100 people over the age of 70 – roughly spread 50/50 between men and women – and surveyed them over the course of a year.

Initially, participants were asked to provide details about their health and their current levels of physical activity, their self-reported physical function and mood and were then followed up at three-month intervals to detect and record any changes that may have taken place during the pandemic.

The study found that even though many of the participants maintained or increased their overall physical activity levels, such as doing indoor exercise, they still felt like their physical function decreased when surveyed. This drop was greater among men. Interestingly, despite the maintenance of total physical activity, the types of activities being done by older adults were less vigorous than pre-COVID-19 which may have contributed to a reduction in perceived physical function.

Participants’ mood also seemed to be associated with the tightening and later easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Dr Richardson suggests the decrease in self-reported physical function may be down to an increase in sitting still and a decrease in usual daily activities brought about by pandemic restrictions.

When COVID-19 restrictions came in, many older adults in the survey recognised the importance of physical activity and purposely tried to adapt their daily routines to ensure they remained active.

But results suggest that simply maintaining or even increasing physical activity consistent with pre-pandemic levels was not enough to maintain perceived physical function if there is a reduction in intensity of those physical activity tasks.

Findings suggest that the increase in sedentary activity and a decrease in usual daily activities, especially with the easing and tightening of restrictions, contributed to this.

When thinking about COVID-19 policies, it is crucial to understand the trade-offs made with varying levels of restrictions. Our results suggest that restricting the movements and activities of older adults could have serious knock-on effects for healthcare services, as a reduction in perceived physical function may contribute to a loss in confidence that further decreases physical activity, creating a vicious cycle.

Further study is needed to determine exactly how physical function is directly affected, but we would urge public health policy makers to consider strategies to maintain physical function in older people over the coming years to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

Dr Darren Richardson, Centre for Sports, Exercise and Life Sciences

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Centre for Sports, Exercise and Life Sciences.