As the new coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S., federal officials are urging Americans to stay home as much as possible to reduce their chances of getting sick from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus. This has led many to abandon routines that provide regular physical activity — walking with friends, group exercise classes, etc. — putting older adults, especially, at risk for loss in physical strength.
But a practice commonly prescribed to patients ahead of surgery, called prehabilitation, can help slow or stop this decline and minimize the long-term damage it can cause.
Erwin Tan, M.D., a geriatrician and director at AARP Thought Leadership, asked Julie Silver, M.D., an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and a medical staff member at Massachusetts General, Brigham and Women's, and Spaulding Rehabilitation hospitals, to explain how this proactive approach can help build resiliency, even during times of increased isolation.
What is prehabilitation?
Most people have heard of rehabilitation — a practice generally aimed at restoring strength after an illness or injury. Prehabilitation prepares people for an upcoming physically stressful situation. The concept dates back to World War II, when the military successfully implemented an early prototype of boot camp to prepare soldiers for the hardship ahead.
In medicine, prehabilitation is often used to get patients ready for surgery to increase their chances of a healthy and successful recovery.
Why is prehabilitation especially important right now?
With the current coronavirus outbreak, everyone's goal is to avoid an infection. And one of the best ways to protect yourself is to limit exposure to others, which is why health experts and government officials have issued physical distancing (commonly called social distancing) guidelines for the country.
But staying home and avoiding groups for an extended period of time can have its downsides, including decreased physical activity. And this can lead to a cascade of events in the body that make people more susceptible to infections and less able to fully recover from them — especially older adults and people with underlying health conditions, who experts say are most at risk for severe illness from a coronavirus infection.
What happens when we become more sedentary?
Many people know that aerobic exercise is good for the heart and lungs, and resistance exercise (weight training) makes skeletal muscles stronger. But what a lot of people do not realize is how quickly we lose strength when we decrease our daily physical activity.