Senior exercise habits declined during coronavirus pandemic

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Haines talks about exercise and tells how some seniors got creative with their exercise habits

It’s the common refrain Carolyn Haines said she gets when she asks returning seniors what they have done to exercise during the pandemic.

“I did nothing.”

Haines, 78, is a group recreational instructor for the Prime Time Seniors Program at East Lansing Hannah Community Center.

“One lady, she’s quite handy with crochet and stuff like that, so she did that,” Haines said. “But she didn’t go for a walk or anything else. She stayed in her house.”

From physical health and wellness to community belonging and mental wellbeing, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted older adults in many ways.

The Hannah Community Center closed its doors to the public on March 13, 2020, following declarations of a local state of emergency by East Lansing’s mayor and a statewide state of emergency by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The Prime Time Seniors Program did not reopen its doors to seniors until fall 2021.

One of Haines’ clients came back to the fitness program once it reopened with safety protocols in place, such as mask wearing, limited class sizes and social distancing. Prior to the pandemic, she would go to the gym twice a day and do water aerobics with Haines three days a week.

“She tried to come back to the fitness, and she was still very, very, very uncomfortable,” Haines said. “So, she’s only doing water aerobics, and she admits she needs more muscle mass.”

Susan Williams, 76, works full-time at a desk job, which means she already sits for eight hours a day, she said. Before the pandemic, she was going to the Westside YMCA two to three times a week where she would use the treadmill and other exercise machines.

“When the pandemic started, I stopped going – absolutely,” she said. “And I sat for 18 months.” 

Her return to exercise happened suddenly when a friend, who also wasn’t exercising, fell at home and had to crawl to the phone to call 911. Her friend ended up in the hospital.

“That scared me because I thought, ‘She’s the same age as I am. And I don’t want to be in that situation,’” Williams said.

Her path back to regular exercise was gradual and began with one-on-one workouts with a friend’s husband in their garage. “I didn’t want to go to the gym. But I know that the time that I went with him, I would be the only person there and he would mask, and I would mask,” Williams said.

After she began to exercise again, her weight dropped from 184 to 172 pounds.

A recent University of Michigan study =found that 45.9% of the 2,006 seniors surveyed experienced increased isolation, 36.9% expressed a decreased physical activity and 37.1% noticed a decline in companionship during the heights of the pandemic.

“The lack of routine impacted the mobility of our seniors,” said Carol Wood, executive director of Retired & Senior Programs of Ingham, Eaton & Clinton Counties. “Being locked down and not having the ability to exercise, just walking the aisles of grocery stores, dramatically affected their ability to do simple things.”

The Retired & Senior Programs provides seniors with volunteer opportunities at local nonprofits, including volunteering in classrooms, at senior facilities, food banks and greeting travelers as they come and go at Lansing’s airport.

Haines wants everyone to know that seniors have suffered during the pandemic. She hopes that Ingham County residents will come to understand the “tragic aspects of COVID on seniors.”

“I think this is true of many others the world over and in East Lansing,” she said.

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