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Exercise activities for drowsy seniors? 

Question: What are some activities that provide exercise my mom can do when she’s feeling drowsy all the time because of medication (and doesn’t want to move)?

Answer: When my stepfather became alarmingly less and less active due to the pandemic, back pain and his medication, I had to resist the urge to get behind him and push. It was important that the motivation to move more came from within him. Trying to coax someone who is tired frequently can lead to feelings of resentment toward you or the activity.

As for your mom, my first concern would be to have your mom confirm with her doctor that the reason for her drowsiness is medication-related and not from another underlying reason. Secondly, she needs to ask her doctor what level and type of activity the doctor would recommend. Moderate to vigorous physical activity may not be appropriate for someone who is dealing with persistent weariness. My third concern is how well your mom is sleeping. Sleep deprivation can lead to an increased likelihood of bouts of fatigue, injury, impaired immune system and diminished concentration. 

With that said, it’s better if you reframe the notion of activity as regular intentional movement throughout the day. The simplest way to do this is to increase daily activity, such as getting up from sitting every 30 to 45 minutes, tidying up for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day, walking around the inside or outside of home four times a day, taking out groups of things or putting them away (such as laundry, dishes or groceries) at least once a day. 

This will add more of the seven essential movements older adults need for functional fitness and to stay independent. These movements are:

  • Pushing (like closing a drawer) 
  • Pulling (like opening a door)
  • Twisting (like moving pans from one side of the stove to the other)
  • Bending (like hinging at the hips to change the sheets)
  • Squatting (like getting in an out of a chair)
  • Lunging (like going up or down stairs) 
  • Gait (like walking or running)

The key is to counteract the deconditioning of muscles and joint stiffness that occurs when individuals go through prolonged periods without exercise. Gentle exercise and movement is less likely to trigger a sense of feeling even more tired from overexertion. Plus, moving more helps the body to produce more endorphins, which boost energy, mood and focus throughout the day. One of the more frustrating aspects of persistence fatigue is the feeling that you are falling behind in your life.

If the concern for COVID keeps your mom away from groups of people – especially indoors – she can try online gentle fitness classes designed for older adults. Some are floor-based exercises while others are chair-based movements. She can check out online classes offered by SilverSneakers or my online studio Agile 4 Life Fitness. Be sure to preview classes to see if the instructor and the type of exercises are a good fit.

If your mom feels comfortable taking an in-person class, I recommend gentle yoga, pilates, tai chi or warm-water exercise. All these exercises work the strength-stretch reflex of muscles and keep the joints moving. If she’s comfortable going to a fitness center, I recommend using a recumbent bike or stepper on a gentle level. The functional fitness goal for older adults is moderate activity for 30 minutes a day for five days a week. She can start at 10 minutes twice a week and then slowly work her way up to the goal. And by “slowly,” I mean weeks not days.

Taking a class may help with motivation and accountability. Inertia is difficult to overcome when feeling drained. At my online studio, we encourage friends and family to join the classes to see what’s happening in class and to be supportive to those returning to fitness. When your mom is greeted by loved ones and other class participants, it can help her find the enthusiasm to move more. And, when her classmates and instructor learn to expect her, it can help her to be accountable to a regular routine.

I also want to emphasize that the activity needs to feel like play. Moving more for your mother needs to feel engaging and enlivening. With my clients with chronic fatigue syndrome, I have always adjusted the workout routine according to their energy levels of the day/hour/minute. We do slow races to stack light things, move them side to side, sit down and toss them, and stand up and toss them again. The important thing is to keep it simple and keep it fun. Avoid pushing your mom when she says she’s had enough. You can be assertive with your concern as long as it is coated with plenty of love, respect and patience.

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