Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health and the Positive Benefits of Exercise in the Elderly Population

Written by: Susie Woo

Canada is known to have an aging population in which 17.5% of the total population (approximately 38 million people) are aged 65 years and older (1). Thus, there is an increasing amount of older adults who are living longer and healthier lives compared to previous generations. This can be attributed to the advancements in medicine and technology, as well as improvements in access to health and wellness resources for the elderly (2). However, due to the recent coronavirus pandemic, seniors have been warned of being prone to infection and consequently death, due to an age-related decline in immune function compared to younger individuals. This has become even more prevalent in long-term care homes, where more than 40% of COVID-19 related deaths in Canada have occurred, and these facilities are still facing outbreaks of infection (3).

Due to the threat against vulnerable peoples such as the elderly, many of them have been encouraged to self-isolate and refrain from having close contact with the outside world or non-household members (4). This not only restricts physical activity and wellness for older adults, but quarantine has also been shown to negatively impact one’s mental health. Although there are some people who are coping well, many others have been feeling lonely and anxious due to abrupt changes in their daily routines. The lack of social interaction, physical activity, and other in-person community engagements are becoming an issue to their mental health, leading to depression, anxiety, and even harboring suicidal thoughts. According to Dr. Lilian Thorpe, a geriatric psychiatrist in Saskatoon, “We’re seeing a lot of people talking about wanting to die, actually, because life is terrible and it doesn’t look like it’s getting better anytime soon, and it’s social isolation that’s driving that.” (5)

However, thanks to different initiatives in the community and access to the internet, it has become possible to facilitate communication with older adults who are in isolation, such as those in long-term care homes, via Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet. In addition, there are online workout sessions that they could do in the comfort of their own home. For instance, McMaster’s PACE (Physical Activity Centre of Excellence) has free online exercise classes, and even virtual info sessions related to exercise and common health conditions seen in the elderly, including osteoporosis, sarcopenia, Parkinson’s disease, and several others (6). For those who don’t have access to a computer or are not tech-savvy, there are pen-pal services available to provide a means of interaction, in order to prevent feelings of loneliness and depression (7).

Although communication and social support is important for managing one’s mental health, exercise/physical activity is another means of achieving a balance in overall health. However, there has been an increase in sedentary behaviour among those in quarantine, which can lead to severe consequences for older adults (8). Thus, exercise should be encouraged to maintain one’s physical and mental wellbeing.

In a systematic review of the effect of low-intensity exercise on physical and cognitive health in older adults, researchers examined randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies on participants aged over 65 that were prescribed with low intensity exercise. A total of 15 studies were included in the systematic review, and most of them concluded that low intensity exercise led to increased lower limb strength, balance, flexibility, and a reduction in depressive symptoms. In terms of mental health specifically, Singh et al.’s study focused on the effectiveness of high and low intensity resistance training for a duration of 8 weeks. Although the high intensity training group was reported to be more effective than the low intensity training group in alleviating symptoms of depression, the low intensity exercise condition still had a significant reduction of symptoms by 29%. Another study had similar results, in which both low and moderate (walking) intensity interventions demonstrated a reduction in depression after 6 months, as well as in the 12 and 60 month follow-up periods. This not only suggests better cognitive health in older adults, but also a lasting impact post-exercise. Furthermore, this implies that moderate or vigorous exercise is not necessary to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, as low intensity exercise can have similar positive benefits in older adults (9).

Overall, mental health in the older population has demonstratively been severely impacted due to COVID-19 and self-isolation. Thus, it is encouraged that older adults continue to be proactive in the safety of their own home by connecting with family and friends online, as well as exercising consistently to improve both physical and mental health.











About The Author: Susie Woo

My name is Susie Woo and I am in my third year of Kinesiology at McMaster. Although my field of study is mainly focused on human movement, I also have an interest in mental health and learning new ways to manage or minimize adverse effects on human cognition. Furthermore, I am passionate about social psychology, in which it strives to explain one’s thoughts and behaviours in the presence of others in a social context. I find it is more relatable to everyday life than regular psychology, and it can reveal interesting aspects about human nature that we may or may not be aware of ourselves.

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