Fitting in Fitness – for Caregivers

October 21, 2010

By Jennifer Newton Reents, R.N.

Making time for physical activity shouldn’t be a last consideration—especially for caregivers. Put fitness at the top of your list.

It’s all too familiar. You are stressed and tired, and find there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all that needs to be done. Taking care of a loved one can be hard on the mind, body and spirit, and unless the caregiver takes care of important personal needs, detrimental to those under one’s care. Symptoms of caregiver stress include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Exhaustion
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of concentration
  • Other health problems

Peter Schroeder, author of Reverse Parenting: How to Survive Caring for Your Aging Parents, says caregiver stress is often caused by denial of the situation, over-scheduling of everyone involved and physical neglect of oneself. One of the best ways to relieve that stress is through exercise.

Regular exercise benefits health in many important ways, including improved mood and attitude.

“Exercise is one of the basic components of good health, which minimizes the likelihood of excessive stress. The way exercise works best, and most successfully, is to have a regularly scheduled time, and a variety of ways to exercise,” says Schroeder, who cares for his elderly father.

The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports recommends exercising three times per week to maintain a healthy level of fitness. The council suggests the following guidelines based on your goals:

    1. Warm-up: A 5- to 10-minute session of walking, jogging, knee lifts, arm circles or trunk rotations before exercise, and a 5- to 10-minute cool down with slow walking or stretching afterward.
    2. Muscle strength: A minimum of two 20-minute sessions per week that include exercises for all the major muscle groups, such as light weight lifting.
    3. Muscle endurance: At least three 30-minute sessions each week that include calisthenics, push ups, sit ups, pull-ups and weight training for all the major muscle groups. Experts say weight-bearing exercise helps bones stay strong and can prevent bone loss. Robyn Stuhr, an exercise physiologist, suggests these weight-bearing exercises:
      • Brisk walking
      • Walking a hilly course
      • Running
      • Aerobic exercise classes
      • Various forms of dance and some calisthenics

Stuhr says weight training/strength training also promotes bone growth in the specific bones involved in the exercise. “Muscles are attached to bone and every time a muscle contracts, it pulls on its bony attachment, stimulating a bone response,” she says. “Strength training is a great way to improve bone health if you have osteoarthritis and have difficulty tolerating certain types of weight-bearing activity.”

  1. Cardio: At least three 20-minute bouts of continuous aerobic (i.e., activity requiring oxygen) rhythmic exercise each week, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, rope-jumping, rowing, cross-country skiing and some continuous action games, such as racketball and handball.
  2. Flexibility: 10-12 minutes of daily stretching exercises performed slowly and evenly, without a bouncing motion.



Sounds like a lot to find time for? Schroeder suggests exercises such as stretching, walking and yoga may also involve the loved one.

Along with the detrimental physical effects of not exercising, such as weight gain as well as other health issues, come the mental health issues of being overstressed without relief.

“Everyone needs some sort of physical outlet,” says Barbara E. Friesner, host of Age Wise Living, the VoiceAmerica.com radio show, and creator of The Ultimate Caregiver’s Success System. “This is especially true of a caregiver for someone with dementia.” Friesner also suggests physical activities that the whole family can enjoy together, such as bowling.

“If a caregiver doesn’t exercise, they’re just stewing in their own anxiety and not countering all the stress. Ultimately it can lead to mental and/or physical breakdown – including deep depression,” Friesner says.

Exercise directly improves mood and leads to better sleep patterns, and might even prevent you from developing dementia-related disorders, says Karen Spangenberg Postal, Ph.D., a board-certified neuropsychologist and president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association.

“Importantly, it also triggers a process of neurogenesis (new cell growth) in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for creating new memories,” she says. “It is well documented that individuals who exercise are less likely to develop dementia.”

Finding the Time and Inspiration

Find your motivation, says Gregg Mumm, a certified fitness trainer and author of Lose Weight, Gain Energy: How To Enjoy Exercise. Decide why exercise is important to you— losing weight, health, getting your diabetes under control, etc.—and make that your goal.

Exercise first thing in the morning to avoid unexpected interruptions, Schroeder says.
Hire someone, Mumm says, if you are able, to do other tasks such as cleaning your house or mowing the lawn. That way you have time to take care of yourself.

Exercise Tips

“The good news is that even exercising for a brief period—5 to 10 minutes—can produce huge results,” says Dave Hubbard, former NFL player and the creator of the Fit10 Fitness system.

Hubbard recommends the following:

  • Use isometrics, which is simply full force against an immovable object. Example; clasp your hands in front of you, and try to pull your hands apart while squeezing your hands together. Do this for 10 seconds, and repeat 3 times. Remember to breathe!
  • Wall sits. Standing with your back to a wall, about 12 inches away, lean your body against the wall, and slide your body up and down as if you where standing and sitting repeatedly on a chair.
  • Walk or run in place. You do not need to lift your legs high. Simply do a quick, repeated motion raising you’re feet a few inches off the floor, and moving your arms aggressively in stride, while breathing deep.

Of course, before beginning any type of exercise program, always check with your health care provider.

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Jennifer Newton Reents, R.N., Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Winter 2009.


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