The events of the last two years uprooted many older adults’ health-related habits. Now, as we settle into new routines and adjust to a “new normal,” physical health should remain a top priority.
According to a Tivity Health Pulse survey of SilverSneakers members in February, more than half of members (56%) reported walking, hiking or cycling would help them get into an exercise routine, and 33% said their eating habits had improved. In other words, while the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on older adults’ health habits, things are seemingly looking up. And with warmer, sunnier weather arriving or around the corner in many parts of the country, there are several ways seniors can get back to, begin or continue prioritizing good health by leveraging the tools at their disposal.
Regular physical activity has many health benefits: It reduces the risk of disease, strengthens bones and muscles, improves brain health, and even reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. This Wednesday marks Senior Health & Fitness Day, and represents an opportunity to educate older adults about how physical activity prevents or mitigates many common health problems tied to aging. For example, research shows that physical activity can lead to better blood sugar levels, and experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity, like brisk walking, to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke.
To understand how older adults continue to be impacted by COVID-19, Tivity Health surveyed respondents on the pandemic’s impact on fitness, nutrition and social connection. Some of the additional findings include:
- Many older adults hadn’t resumed gym workouts.
With new COVID-19 variants continually emerging, many older adults were reluctant to physically return to the gym, even though it’s a great option to maintain a physical fitness routine and connect socially with people. Similar to the second half of 2021, roughly 4 in 10 older adults who planned to exercise were resistant to resuming gym workouts, with 23% specifically unwilling to return and 21% uncertain if they would return.
- One in 5 older adults needed to improve their eating habits.
Nutrition and access to healthy foods are critical pieces of the total health puzzle. While 1 in 3 older adults (33%) reported eating healthier, 21% of respondents said their eating habits had declined.
- One in 3 older adults suffers from social isolation.
COVID-19 continues to affect older adults’ mental health. In fact, even as the pandemic continues to evolve, 33% cited the inability to visit family and friends as causing the most disruption to their lives since the onset of COVID-19. Social isolation for older adults (12%) was triple that of pre-COVID-19 levels (4%). And among low-income individuals, that number doubled, with nearly 1 in 4 (24%) reporting they often felt isolated from others in the past week. Virtual forms of communication are beneficial for both social interactions and medical appointments. The survey found 64% of respondents reported video chatting with friends and family, while 41% reported using video chat for medical and therapy appointments.
How Older Adults Can Improve Their Health and Well-Being
Despite the challenges the pandemic presents, older adults can establish routines that allow them to stay active and practice good health every day. Here are three ways Aetna Medicare and SilverSneakers are working to help make this a reality:
- Staying fit. SilverSneakers, a Tivity Health program offered through participating Medicare plans (including Aetna Medicare Advantage plans), offers virtual workouts for all fitness levels. They also offer in-person classes at parks, local community centers and more across over 17,000 locations.
- Ensuring access to healthy foods. Maintaining good health goes beyond clinical care. Unfortunately for many older adults, food insecurity is a barrier to maintaining good health. To help address this need, some Aetna Medicare Advantage plans offer Healthy Foods benefit cards to qualified members to buy fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods.
- Helping older adults form connections. For older adults with friends or family living far away, social connection can be a real concern. To combat these feelings, some health plans offer companionship benefits to address social isolation. Multiple insurers, including Aetna, have partnered with Papa Inc., which connects older adults with adult companions who can help with chores, technology needs and, above all, offer companionship.
Similarly, Aetna’s Resources For Living program helps address loneliness and other social needs by connecting members with important community resources, such as transportation, housing, food programs, caregiver support and utility assistance, based on individual needs. The program serves as an early intervention point for the many issues that affect our members’ physical and mental health. And SilverSneakers also supports social engagement: 52% of people reported making new and valuable friendships through SilverSneakers in a 2021 member survey.
As another example, Tivity Health partnered with other organizations to deliver over 300,000 meals to homebound older adults during COVID-19, addressing both nutritional deficits and companionship gaps.
Commit to Improving Health
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults over age 65 get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, which can include 30-minute brisk walks, or participate in more strenuous exercises like jogging for 75 minutes a week. As you seek to keep your body and mind active, you also should practice balancing and muscle-strengthening activities.
If older adults incorporate the recommended amounts of physical activity, or more, and explore the tools available to address other components of their health – like wellness, diet and companionship – they’ll be more likely to ward off future health problems.
Let’s work together to ensure older adults can live long and fulfilling lives by making smart health decisions. Let’s get moving.