For several decades now, non-profit and government campaigns to stop people from smoking (or prevent young people from starting in the first place) have graced magazines, radio stations, and even television commercials. Telling the truth about the contents of cigarettes, for example, or showing smoking as a bully that demands time and money and causes an unpleasant odor, all encourage people to give up the habit. The private sector markets commercial aids that help people quit without uncomfortable withdrawal, allowing users to quit over a period of several days or weeks by chewing gum or using a patch placed on the skin. The medical community has known for some time that smoking causes cancer of the mouth, tongue, windpipe, and lungs—as well as causes harm to the development of those organs in children.
Doctors have recommended that smokers quit as soon as possible to lower their risks of cardiovascular diseases and emphysema as well. In light of all of this information, many physicians and caregivers advise seniors to give up the unhealthy habit of smoking. New research, though, points out that the health benefits gained by quitting smoking can also be achieved through exercise, and suggests that those providing care for seniors should be just as concerned with exercise as with smoking.
A study conducted in Oslo, Norway found that the risk of death was reduced by 40% through moderate time periods of exercise, (30 minutes, six days a week), whether exercising vigorously or lightly. This puts exercise right up against quitting smoking as a way to keep older people living longer. The study does not note this, but it is also true that exercise promotes other kinds of health as well—brain health, increased mobility, emotional and mental well being through socializing and non-isolation—that help older people lead longer, happier, and healthier lives.
Not all seniors can exercise in the same ways.
What a Caregiver Must Know
The important information from this study is that seniors should exercise, and that caregivers should take it as seriously as a visibly harmful habit such as smoking. This is not to say that all seniors should take after Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and lift extremely heavy weights for hours each day (although weight lifting is a great way to exercise!). Not all seniors can exercise in the same ways. A discussion with the elderly person’s doctor should reveal what kinds of physical activity are safe and healthy for the individual’s health needs, and what kinds of results the person should see over time with proper use of equipment, if that applies. Many older adults enjoy taking walks around the neighborhood, or during a visit to a local park or museum, and every little bit helps. Even doing chores can count as physical activity, including folding laundry, cleaning floors, and even cooking. These activities promote independent living, an important factor in self-esteem. Swimming is a way to enjoy low-impact exercise, and it is especially good for seniors just beginning an exercise regimen, since it is generally less exhausting and tough on joints.
Another important fact from the article is that quitting smoking can dramatically affect a person’s health for the better. A 40% reduction in mortality is no joke; it means more years of better living for seniors and their loved ones. Yet smoking is a difficult habit to break, and should not be taken lightly. Although many think of quitting smoking as a “cold-turkey” situation, that mentality is actually shown to be less effective in the long run; as with most things related to health, a doctor should be brought in to evaluate the best way to quit, and whether or not quitting aids are safe to use in an individual’s particular situation. Even if an elderly loved one is already experiencing the negative effects of years of smoking, there are always benefits to quitting, including saving money on tobacco products. It is best to begin a conversation about quitting smoking with both facts and sympathy. A long time, sometimes even decades, of completing the ritual habit of smoking cigarettes can make it very difficult for seniors to imagine leaving it behind. Caregivers do well to be supportive as seniors struggle or even falter on this journey, since that is a normal part of the process. It is most important to continue to have any seniors in one’s care evaluated for side effects of smoking, since the risks associated with it are so serious.
Holme, I. and Anderssen, S.A. (March 27, 2015). Increases in physical activity is as important as smoking cessation for reduction in total mortality in elderly men: 12 years of follow-up of the Oslo II study. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49: 743-748. Available at http://sbgg.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/2-smoking-cessation.pdf. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
National Institutes of Health. SeniorHealth. Exercise: Benefits of Exercise. NIHSeniorHealth.com. Available at https://nihseniorhealth.gov/exerciseforolderadults/healthbenefits/01.html. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
National Institutes of Health. SeniorHealth. Quitting Smoking for Older Adults. NIHSeniorHealth.com. Available at http://nihseniorhealth.gov/quittingsmoking/quittingwhenyoureolder/01.html. Retrieved August 10, 2016.