To do or not to do: exercise and chronic conditions

“If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” – Mickey Mantle

Krystal Simpson
Healthy Living

Canadians are living longer than ever before. In fact, the average Canadian woman can expect to live until the age of 84 and men until age 80. As life expectancy increases, however, so does the number of Canadians living with chronic disease and pain.

According to a report from Canada’s chief public health officer, 80 per cent of seniors are living with a chronic condition and at least 30 per cent have multiple chronic conditions. Chronic conditions are defined as health problems requiring ongoing management over a period of years or decades. Examples of chronic conditions include arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, chronic back pain, diabetes and depression. So while we may be living longer, the quality of those years is often diminished by pain and illness.

Worldwide, by the year 2050, the number of people aged 60 and older is projected to reach 2.1 billion. Yes that’s right…billion. The United Nations World Aging Population Report states unequivocally that this increase is, “poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century, with implications for nearly all sectors of society.”

One of the more far-reaching impacts will be on the health-care sector. As chronic disease numbers rise, so do the associated health-care costs. For example, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, treatment of chronic disease consumes 67 per cent of all direct health-care costs in Canada.

New research studies have shown that exercise can help alleviate chronic disease symptoms, guard against developing a secondary condition and even improve quality of life, leading some health-care providers to actually prescribe exercise. An article published by the Arthritis Society asserts that, “exercise is considered the most effective non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in osteoarthritis.”

A systematic research review from the University of Western Ontario’s school of physical therapy found that physical activity can indeed help manage chronic conditions. Specifically, aerobic and resistance training done two or three times per week is beneficial for individuals with chronic disease. However, the study cautioned that exercise programs need to be monitored by a health-care provider and tailored to an individual’s specific needs based on their condition. For example, if you have heart disease, your cardiologist can advise on what type of exercise you can safely do and what activities to avoid.

If you are living with a chronic condition, the thought of incorporating physical activity into your daily routine may be overwhelming to say the least. But it’s important to remember that every little bit counts and small amounts of exercise can make a difference. Even individuals who have limited mobility can benefit from an exercise program.

Candace Swick, a specialized older adult rehabilitation therapist and owner of Bee Wellness in Winnipeg, emphasizes the importance of functional fitness for her clients. Functional fitness refers to exercises that can help you with activities of daily living. For example, Candace may work with a client to improve their leg strength so they are able to get up from a couch on their own without any assistance. Candace helps clients living with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis, along with individuals who have had a stroke and those who have undergone hip, knee or shoulder surgery.

Candace recalled a client’s success story where functional rehabilitation and fitness helped a beloved grandmother recover from a stroke. “This was a strong, independent woman who helped everyone else around her and didn’t like the fact that she now had to let everyone help her,” Candace said. “We started out with the basic range of motion, small leg and arm movements and eventually graduated to a more aggressive program. By working on her body four times a week, we managed to get her from a wheelchair to a walker, and now to walking with a cane.”

Adaptive programs that are tailored to each individual are very important for people with chronic conditions. So is starting off slow at a low intensity and gradually building endurance. Candace recommends about 30 minutes of activity a day, with a reminder to incorporate strength and balance training along with stretching into any program.

So if you are ready to get started, consider working with a health-care provider, physical therapist or certified fitness professional to help design an exercise program that is right for you. It’s never too late to reap the tremendous benefits of exercise!

For additional information, please read through the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for adults aged 65 and older:

Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline. This article is informational only and not meant to replace the advice of a health-care professional and/or physician.

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