Winter 2021 Newsletter
By Sarah Walker, PT, DPT
Department of Physical Therapy
University of Central Arkansas
As healthcare professionals are faced with the numerous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians who serve geriatric clients are being met with stark statistical findings from epidemiology studies. Age in advance of 65 years is the single most important predictor of mortality from COVID-19, with elderly individuals representing a significantly higher proportion of those who perish from the disease. 1-3 This increased risk is multifactorial, but is heavily influenced by declines in immune system function that reduce responses to viral infection.3 These findings support recommendations by community health leaders for elders to self-isolate in order to avoid infection.2
One consequence for older adults under self-isolation or quarantine is psychological trauma, including increased feelings of anxiety, stress, and anger. 2, 4 Anxiety and depression can also cause maladaptive changes to immune function, potentially further increasing an already vulnerable population. 5 In addition, geriatric individuals have an increased psychosocial burden associated with isolation as compared to other age groups.2 Because self-isolation is not benign, clinicians must provide other evidence-based strategies to clients in order to decrease morbidity and increase immune system protection from this virus. 3, 6
Physical activity is widely prescribed to seniors because movement has been shown to boost immune system function, reduce inflammation, improve emotional well-being, and reduce all-cause mortality.6 Encouraging elderly clients to engage in a more active and movement rich lifestyle can take the form of both physical activity and physical exercise. Physical activity suggestions may include dancing in their living rooms, walking outdoors, gardening, or playing with a beloved pet. Whereas physical exercise represents a planned and structured movement with a clear and purposeful intervention such as lifting weights, aerobics, or yoga.
Physical exercise of moderate intensity (64-76% of maximum heart rate) lasting 15-40 minutes in duration for 3 days per week over 6 months has demonstrated a significant increase in the number of T cells in the blood of elderly adults. Regular long-term exercise has also demonstrated enhanced immune response against both viruses and bacteria and appears to slow immunological ageing.6 Acute bouts of exercise, like walking for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity, likewise demonstrated enhanced immune function by a variety of mechanisms. The findings of previous research also suggest that acute moderate intensity resistance training for 45 minutes can result in increased activity.
Evidence is compelling that physical activity can be beneficial for older adults, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Physical activity and exercise can increase immune system function and psychological well-being in this exceptionally vulnerable population. Clinicians should encourage and promote physical activity in older adults in order to decrease the risk of COVID-19 complications.
1. Daoust JF. Elderly people and responses to COVID-19 in 27 Countries. PLoS One. 2020 Jul 2;15(7):e0235590.
2. Javadi SMH, Nateghi N. COVID-19 and its psychological effects on the elderly population. Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2020 Jun;14(3):e40-e41.
3. Abdelbasset WK. Stay Home: Role of Physical Exercise Training in Elderly Individuals’ Ability to Face the COVID-19 Infection. J Immunol Res. 2020;Nov 28;8375096.
4. Torales J, O’Higgins M, Castaldelli-Maia JM, Ventriglio A. The outbreak of COVID-19 coronavirus and its impact on global mental health. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2020 Jun;66(4):317-320.
5. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Glaser R. Depression and immune function: central pathways to morbidity and mortality. J Psychosom Res. 2002 Oct;53(4):873-6.
6. Amatriain-Fernández S, Gronwald T, Murillo-Rodríguez E, Imperatori C, Solano AF, Latini A, Budde H. Physical Exercise Potentials Against Viral Diseases Like COVID-19 in the Elderly. Front Med (Lausanne). 2020 Jul 3;7:379.