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New video illustrates the downside of inactivity

Published: November 5, 2018

Researchers at McMaster University are warning that even short periods of inactivity in older people — as little as two weeks — can lead to worsening physical health, which could have a dramatic impact on an aging population.

By some estimates, nearly 25 per cent of Canadians will be over the age of 65 by the year 2036. For Stuart Phillips, a professor in the Department of Kinesiology and member of MIRA, physical activity and nutrient-dense dietary protein are critical to keep seniors moving and healthy.   

“I cannot think of a lifestyle habit that has a more positive effect on a person’s physical and mental health as being physically active,” he says.

To that end, he and his research team have produced a video on the importance of staying active.

Phillips points out that recently published work from his team, and others, shows that even short periods of physical inactivity — caused by hospitalization, illness, or simply contracting the flu — can be harmful to an older person’s health. For some, he says, these periods are like times of accelerated biological aging.

One of the biggest consequences is a rapid onset of symptoms that are the precursor to type 2 diabetes, namely elevated blood sugar. If these periods are long enough, or frequent enough, muscle and strength loss would certainly become an issue, warns Phillips.

“What happens with these periods of inactivity is that older people experience declines in health and lose muscle that is very difficult to recover. As we show in the video, even seemingly benign periods of inactivity require some rehabilitation,” he says.  

Phillips says that trying to become more physically active and emphasizing nutrient-rich sources of protein are the keys to recovery. In his estimation, bouts of sickness like the flu are far more problematic than the respiratory distress that gets treated.

“I think depression and loneliness are big issues in older persons that we forget about when they return home ‘well’ after contracting the flu. That they then ‘recover’ in their home or apartment without social contact is a double-edged sword,” he says.

Phillips stresses that there is more work to be done in the lab, including a better understanding of the underpinning mechanisms.

Funding for this work came from Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canadian Diabetes Association and the Canada Research Chair program, with additional support from the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging (MIRA).

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