Improving health and fitness at home

August 4, 2021

For almost a year and a half, we’ve been forced to adapt our exercise routines for home environments. Many people have signed up for virtual classes or worked with a fitness professional over a video call. Virtual exercise has several advantages, but is it feasible for older adults?

Schlegel Research Chairs Lora Giangregorio and Heather Keller wanted to answer this question when they created Movestrong at Home. It was developed as a virtual adaptation of their in-person exercise program Movestrong in response to COVID-19 restrictions. The eight-week education program combined functional strength and balance training with nutrition education delivered by phone or online. The older adult participants received mailed materials, online nutrition videos, one-on-one training sessions and took part in virtual discussion groups.

“There was a lot of interest in the program. Physical inactivity, malnutrition and social isolation are common concerns among older adults that were exacerbated because of the pandemic,” said Ellen Wang, a Kinesiology and Health Sciences graduate student at the University of Waterloo who supported the program. “We were able to develop tailored programs for 30 individuals to address these concerns; three over the phone and 27 over a video platform.”

Physical activity doesn’t just keep older adults moving, it also keeps them safer. Up to 30 per cent of older adults experience age-related loss of muscle strength, which can lead to frailty and an increased risk of falls. Exercise helps to build muscle, maintain bone density, and prevent chronic disease, especially as we age. Declines in physical function can also stem from poor nutrition, specifically inadequate intake of quality protein. Giangregorio and Keller saw Movestrong and Movestrong at Home as an alternate way to promote better health through exercise and proper nutrition to our most vulnerable. 

Prior to the start of the virtual program in October 2020, only 43 per cent of the study participants met Canada’s physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity weekly. After the program, that number rose to 71 per cent. Participants also reported improvements in strength, balance, mobility, energy and mood. They were able to do the things they love more easily, like gardening or going for walks. 

“This population of older adults with health concerns specific to mobility impairments need one-on-one attention,” said Wang. “I believe that the tailored training contributed heavily to the improvements that were seen over the eight weeks.”

Through this intervention, the participants now know how to independently incorporate functional movements and balance exercises into their routine to improve their strength and stability. They also learned about goal setting, action planning, and self-monitoring through their sessions with Wang. Additionally, participants now understand how to improve protein intake from discussions with a dietitian.

The research team will apply the results of the study to help inform future research related to virtual exercise, nutrition and rehabilitation for older adults.