Don’t let downsizing make you lazy! How it could damage your health

Oct 16, 2019
Downsizing may boost your finances or give you greater independence, but Dr Scott Lear warns it can also lead to people becoming less active in later life. Source: Getty.

Being active and exercising at any age is good for us. Regular physical activity lowers your chances of getting diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as preventing injurious falls and early death. And if that’s not enough, a single bout of exercise can give you a burst of energy and improve your memory.

The recommendations for older Australians is to be active at least 30 minutes on most days in moderate or vigorous activity. This can include brisk walking, cycling, swimming or other forms of movement, which get you heart rate and breathing elevated. However, only one quarter of older Australians meet these guidelines.

Throughout our lives, our activity levels change. For most adults it generally peaks around the early to mid-20s. From that point to late middle age, activity is fairly constant, with only a slight decrease over the years. It’s usually when people get into their 60s that activity starts to decline. At the same time, the amount of sitting and other sedentary activities increase.

This is a concern as time spent sitting or being inactive is also associated with poor health. Often we think as we get older, we should limit how much activity we get. But being active in later life may be more important than when we were younger.

As we age strength and fitness decline. We’re not able to run or swim as fast as we used to. However, only a small amount of the decrease in fitness we experience with age is due to biological changes from getting older. People who are active throughout their lives experience only a fraction of the decrease in fitness and strength than inactive people do.

For most adults, being in their 60s is accompanied by significant lifestyle changes, which may affect opportunities to be active. Retirement is one of them in which a person is no longer getting even the small amounts of activity associated with their former job.

Another is downsizing, when people change homes from a larger one to a smaller one. This can be going from a house or townhouse with a garden and multiple floors to an apartment with no stairs and no garden.

Of course there are many good reasons for downsizing. Finances are often one. Another may be no longer needing the space as children have moved out. Yet another may be to avoid the hassle or stress of taking care of a larger home.

But, regardless of the reason, downsizing one’s home can lead to less activity. No longer will you be going up and down the stairs a dozen or more times per day, tending to the garden, or even vacuuming the many rooms you have given up. While these types of activities seem small, over time that loss of activity adds up. And while we might not think of household chores such as vacuuming as being active, it’s similar in effort to a moderate walk. Likewise, cutting the grass is only slightly less effort than a light jog.

Your body is an efficient machine and able to adapt to the physical stress or rest that you give it. That’s why athletes train in order to make themselves stronger. Conversely, with less activity, our body adapts and gets weaker.

Often people attribute the reduction in strength and fitness to age and further decrease their activity. This can lead to an endless cycle in which the body gets weaker, so we do less making us even unable to do what we did before. Once a person gets into their 70s and 80s, this can limit the ability to do common activities of daily living such as grocery shopping or washing dishes. If this continues, the ability to live independently can become a challenge.

The good news is our bodies can bounce back. If you’re able to replace activity lost from downsizing or even do more it will improve your fitness. In fact, how active you are today is more important to your health than how active you were 10 or 20 or more years ago. And it’s never too late to start being active.

The foundation of a great activity plan is fitting it into your life in such a way it is easy to do and you enjoy it. One can have all the best intentions and buy a gym membership or fancy home exercise equipment but never use it because it’s not fun or convenient.

To help you increase your activity, do it with friends or join a class. A lot of things are more fun when you do it with others. This could be a water aerobics class at the local pool or a bike spin class. You may not know anyone at the start, but after a while you soon will. Being active with friends also adds accountability to your activity.

Downsizing may mean giving up your own garden but you can still use your green thumb by participating in a community garden. You help beautify the neighbourhood, get your gardening fix in without having to worry about owning the space.

Volunteering is another way to increase your activity along with maintaining social connections within your community. And if you like staying at home, there are plenty of home exercise videos on YouTube targeted to older adults, which don’t even require any equipment.

If you haven’t downsized yet but are planning to, look for a neighbourhood that encourages walking. These are communities, which make it easy to walk to the supermarket or bank. They have a mix of residential and retail spaces within walking distance as well as parks so you can be with nature. You can leave your car at home, or even do away with it.

Downsizing your home can have a lot of benefits but don’t let it downsize your activity as well. Keeping physically active can help you maintain your strength and fitness to live your life to its fullest.

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