Moderate Exercise Program Benefits Health of Older Women Caregivers

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A new study reports older women caregivers slept better and lowered their blood pressure after participating in a moderate exercise program. Results of the study were published in the November issue of Medical Sciences’ Journal of Gerontology.

According to a randomized study at the Stanford University School of Medicine, caregivers who exercised 4 times a week showed significant improvements to their health This is the first investigation into the effectiveness of physical activity tailored specifically to the needs of caregivers

One hundred women ages 49 to 82 volunteered to participate in a counseling program with either a moderate exercise or nutrition program. Each received a 30 to 40 minute face-to-face introductory counseling session, with the remainder of contacts delivered by telephone. All the volunteers averaged 72 hours a week of care for demented family members, 63 percent of whom had Alzheimer’s disease. Participants lived with their care recipients either all the time (92 percent) or most of the time (8 percent) and had spent an average of 4 years caring for their impaired relative.

Each week, 51 women in the exercise group engaged in four, 30 to 40 minute sessions of aerobic exercises such as brisk walking. These women also completed daily exercise logs, which included activity type, intensity, and duration. These were mailed each month to the project staff.

The 49 members of the nutrition group learned about nutrition topics, discussed benefits of good nutrition, and kept daily diet logs. Telephone calls of 15 to 20 minutes were used to monitor progress of both groups, answer questions, and provide individualized feedback.

At the end of the study, the exercise group showed significant improvements in stress-induced blood pressure levels and sleep quality compared to the women who received nutrition counseling.

By the study’s end, those in the exercise group spent 5 hours a week exercising compared to the nutrition group who spent less than 3 hours per week in physical activity. The exercising caregivers also showed significantly lower 12-month systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels in response to an emotional stress test. Conversely, the nutrition participants’ diet improved but the group showed no changes in either resting or reactive blood pressure.

The home-based exercise program was particularly important to the 12 participants who could not leave or find coverage for their care recipients for 30 minutes during the day. A health educator worked with them to develop an indoor exercise program based on their preferences. Other participants also received an individualized physical activity plan based on their preferences.

“This is a an important study given that many U.S. households eventually will provide care to ill or disabled relatives,” said Dr. Sidney M. Stahl, Chief of Behavioral Medicine within the NIA’s Behavioral and Social Research Program. “Studies show that family care giving accompanied by emotional strain is an independent risk factor for mortality among older adults. The study gives us some evidence that a self-directed exercise program can reduce stress reactions and perhaps improve the health of caregivers.”