Food & Fitness After 50: Finding the Silver Lining for Active Older Adults During the Pandemic

Food & Fitness After 50 is built on the pillars of eating well, moving well, and being well. So, when Tivity Health, the parent company of of SilverSneakers™, invited me to be a member of their scientific advisory board, I enthusiastically agreed. SilverSneakers embraces the same principles that I hold and while most people think of it as an exercise program, they have an equal emphasis on health, wellness, nutrition and connectivity.

iStock-Older couple runningNow with in-person group exercise classes on pause to stop the spread of COVID-19, how has the change affected SilverSneakers members? Researchers at Tivity Health conducted a number of surveys through the SilverSneakers newsletter on social connections, exercise, and nutrition to understand the concerns of newsletter readers. The survey provides a snapshot of an engaged community and their changing health habits. The infographic shown below (Source: Tivity Health) shows the highligts of the survey conducted between March 26-April 16, 2020. Let’s take a look at how sheltering at home is affecting older adult’s activity, nutrition, and social connections and provide tips on how to make the best of a bad situation…sort of the silver lining for SilverSneakers members.

Being Well and the Power of Social Connection

SilverSneakers Pulse Survey

Let’s start with the loss of social connection. Not surprisingly, ranked as the number one disruptor is the inability to visit with family and friends. I’m sure my SilverSneakers friends miss their coffee corner at our local gym as much as they miss the opportunity to exercise at the facility. The survey also found that limited social interaction contributed to feelings of stress and anxiety.

iStock-Older friends enjoying meal smallSocial support is big part of being well. Research from the Harvard Study of Adult Development found that participants derived their greatest happiness and joy in life from relationships. Men who were socially connected to family, friends, and community were healthier and happier, and they lived longer, than those who had less social connection. Tivity Health’s own research backs up that finding. A study published in 2018 in the Journal of Applied Gerontology found that membership in SilverSneakers not only increased physical activity but also improved health through decreased social isolation and loneliness.

The Silver Lining? Learning how to stay in touch using video chats, live streaming, or social media sites, such as Facebook Live. About 75% of survey respondents say that using various technology tools to stay in contact with friends and family members has helped bridge the physical distance. And with more use comes more confidence in using technology. Everything from religious services, to virtual bridge clubs, to reading stories to their grandchildren, older adults are embracing video capabilities and becoming more comfortable and proficient. That proves that you can teach new skills at any age.

Moving Well: Staying Active in Creative Ways

A big part of SilverSneakers is exercise, and with fitness facilities temporarily shuttered, how do older adults stay active? Survey results show that 93% of all members are still engaging is some form of exercise. Spring brings people out of doors and many find that they can still walk or bike, even with social distancing. And they recognize that activity of any kind is also exercise; from gardening to completing home projects keeps people moving.

iStock Older man lifting weights smallWhile walking is a wonderful fitness activity, we still need to balance our exercise plate with strength training and the ABCs (agility, balance, and coordination). Keeping muscles strong is always important but even more so now. Between the ages of 20 and 90, we can lose over 50% of our muscle mass due to sedentary lifestyle and sarcopenia (which means “vanishing flesh.”) For those who get ill and are confined to bed, a loss of 1% of muscle mass per day compounds the situation. The good news is that strength training just 2 days per week for about 30 minutes per session can reverse muscle loss.

older-adults-tai-chi-outside-e1505160556655Agility, balance, and coordination helps older adults stay active, reduces musculoskeletal injuries, and reduces the risk of falling. While we may never be as agile and coordinated in our body movements at 70 as we were at 20, simple exercises can help improve the ABCs. Yoga, Tai Chi, stretching, balancing on one foot, all can help improve balance.

For those who have replaced their exercise routine with only walking during this time, be sure to start slow when you do return to your pre-COVID-19 workout to avoid injury. In the nutrition world when refeeding a malnourished patient, we use the phrase, “make haste slowly,” and that applies to kick-starting your exercise routine.

The Silver Lining? SilverSneakers offers video home workouts with over 200 videos on demand, so no chance for boredom! There is also the SilverSneakers GO fitness app for smart phones, so workouts are portable. And, with Facebook Live exercise classes offered multiple times per week, activity is possible for these times. Don’t have Facebook but would still love to take part in live classes? Tivity Health recently launched SilverSneakers LIVE, where members can enjoy full-length, live classes and workshops directly through the SilverSneakers website. Create or log in to your account to see the class schedule.

Even without videos, much can be done with exercise bands. I have a set of three bands…light, medium, and heavy resistance that I use for bicep curls, triceps extensions, and shoulder exercises. I hang them on a doorknob as a visual reminder to use them every day.

Eating Well: Get Creative

iStock-Older couple making salad smallSurvey results for nutrition habits show a mixed bag. 56% of respondents report eating more home-cooked meals. Generally, cooking results in healthier meals, so that is a good thing. However, about 25% report making less healthy choices and 30% are eating out of boredom. Comfort foods are definitely “in” right now, but comfort food doesn’t have to be unhealthy food. This might be the right time to lighten up an old family favorite and there are plenty of recipe sites online to help you make substitutions, not sacrifices. Keep healthy snacks on hand so when boredom has you heading to the kitchen choose a snack of fresh fruit, yogurt, or a handful of nuts.

refrigerator-22592466The bad news is that about 1 in 5 people worry about having enough food or being able to restock their supplies. With disruptions in the food supply chain and home delivery of groceries hit or miss (or delayed) it can be a good time to do an inventory of everything in your freezer, fridge, and pantry and plan creative meals around what you have on hand. (For more on this strategy, click here and here.)

The Silver Lining? Many home delivery meal systems are offering significant discounts for meal and snack delivery. And while you may think of meal delivery such as Nutrisystem* as “diet” food, the meals are healthful and could be used to supplement what you have on hand. This is also a good time to dig out appliances hiding in a closet…a George Foreman grill, an Air Fryer, or Crockpot can be used for easy to prepare meals without a lot of fuss. Crockpot cooking can be  an especially affordable and easy way to r batch prep meals, so you can cook once and eat two or three times.

These unprecedented times have us moving in new directions, but the survey results clearly showed that older adults are resilient. We are strong and creative in finding new ways to eat well, move well, and be well. We might just find that we like those Zoom happy hours with our friends and exercising online!

*Nutrisystem is part of the Tivity Health portfolio of products.

Thanks to Tivity Health researchers Dr. Justin Barclay and Lisa Jameson, and Janna Lacatell, Executive Director of Social Determinants Solutions for Tivity Health for providing information about the SilverSneakers survey.

Dr. Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Along with Dr. Bob Murray, she is the author of Food & Fitness After 50.

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.