The Importance of Active Living
By Jeannette Steeves Ph. D.
Independence is valued at all phases of life beginning with the two-year-old who is beginning to discover that s/he is a separate being from his/her mother, father, and siblings. “I can do it myself” is a mantra often heard from children experiencing the thrill of independence for the first time. Independence is equally important to an aging person who may be challenged by the performance of important independence-related tasks. Some of these tasks include shopping and preparation of simple meals, routine personal hygiene, and cleaning of a residence.
Simulation Lab Predicts Length of Independence
The technology exists to test your current level of ability in these tasks and to predict how long you will be able to independently perform them. Dr. Elaine Cress, Associate Professor in the Exercise Science Department of the Gerontology Center at the University of Georgia, has developed a laboratory experience designed to predict the probability of independence for aging individuals. The lab uses a model of a small residence complete with a kitchen, a bedroom, and a living room. There is also an area that simulates a bus at a bus stop. Individuals – 55 and older – are guided through a series of activities such as: shopping at a lab-simulated grocery store; carrying grocery bags to the lab bus-stop and boarding the bus; and taking the groceries into the kitchen of the lab residence and placing them in the wall-mounted cabinet there. The testing experience also involves placing bedding on a full size bed, vacuuming the floors, and sitting and rising from a chair. A timed walk contributes important information about the participant’s physical condition. After each task is performed, metabolic information and strength measurements are checked and recorded. The result is a rating that reflects strength, stamina, and reserve. Together this information can predict at what point a person, currently functioning independently, will begin to require assistance. The prediction assumes that the level of activity would remain consistent with current levels.
Modifying Daily Routines
The good news is that the prediction can be altered; you can change the outcome by modifying your daily routine. As daily physical activity increases, strength, stamina and reserve are likely to improve. Housing design can facilitate increased activity in the home. This doesn’t mean installing a home gym or taking unnecessary risks. * It means breaking the routines that have become comfortable. For instance, instead of storing frequently used items within “the comfort zone” (defined by the Rhode Island School of Design as “the area within easy reach of each individual”), consider storing them in locations that require a little reaching or bending. For example, relocating the coffee to a shelf in the cupboard that requires stretching could be beneficial. Stairs too can provide an opportunity for increased activity. If you are capable of climbing stairs today without risk or pain, each day that you climb them you are strengthening your large muscles as well as your heart and lungs. If climbing stairs causes pain or triggers insecurity, it is not for you.
Each person’s daily routine is unique, and each activity in the routine provides opportunity for mental and physical activity. Reviewing daily routines with attention to increasing the activity involved can improve overall health, as well as the likelihood of remaining independent far into the future.
* Consult your doctor before making any changes to your routine that might have an impact on your health and do not engage in activities that cause pain or risk bodily harm.
Jeannette Steeves has over 30 years of experience in interior design with a particular emphasis on senior housing. She holds a Ph.D. in Housing, Interior Design, and Resource Management with a minor in Gerontology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.