Excessive sitting, some say, is the new smoking – in other words, something that insidiously contributes to shortening a lifespan.
Indeed, says Emerson Sebastião, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, at least one decade of research into physical activity behavior shows that “sitting too much is going to be detrimental to your health.”
But what does that mean for elderly people who live in nursing homes or retirement communities, where very little time is spent standing or moving?
Little scholarship on this matter exists on that population, Sebastião says, who are different from their counterparts still living at home in their communities.
“Physical activity is reduced drastically, and the amount of time spent sitting is higher,” Sebastião says. “Someone is going to cook for you. Someone is going to clean for you. Someone is going to do your laundry.”
Residents of DeKalb’s Oak Crest Retirement Center are participating in Sebastião’s current research project to help him understand how sitting impacts their lives and what “interventions” he can develop or suggest to get residents to sit less and move more.
Called “SCOPE” (Sedentary Behavior, COgnition and Physical Function in OldEr Adults Living in a Retirement Community), his work examines how sitting affects not only the physical fitness of the Oak Crest residents but their mental fitness as well.
Tests for physical fitness gauge upper- and lower-body strength, record how many steps they can take in two minutes, count how many times they can stand up from a chair in 30 seconds, assess their gait while walking a straight line for a certain distance and pivoting for a return, and measure how far they can lean ahead without losing their balance.
Speed is a critical factor, Sebastião says. “People who walk quicker live longer.”
Cognition, on the other hand, is evaluated through verbal and visual memory skills. Sebastião recites 16 words to the test subjects and asks to hear them repeated back to him in any order.
Declining memory is something Sebastião understands personally through interactions with his late grandmother. “I would say to her, ‘Grandma, you need to buy your groceries. Grandma, you need to pay your bills. Grandma, you need to clean room.’ ”
When he completes his study – he’s hoping to examine 100 people, and is about three-quarters of the way there – he will have valuable data for the next step.
“I’m trying to establish a connection between scores on these tests and the amount of time residents spend sitting,” he says. “We don’t have any recommendations on how long people should spending sitting to protect them from adverse health outcomes. We don’t have such a thing for older adults.”
Possible “interventions” to help those in need include wearing Fitbits or similar devices that track footsteps, standing or walking around the living room during TV commercials, engaging in exercise that improves cardiorespiratory or muscle fitness or seeking counseling to help them understand the importance of moving more and sitting less.
Unfortunately, he says, much of physical activity behavior or the lack of it is most likely predetermined by personal habits earlier in life.
Human beings who are physically active and fit in their younger years “are building up a savings account. Their rate of slowing down as they grow older is slower,” Sebastião says. “Those who are active at a young age are more likely to be active in older age.”
Sebastião, who studies elderly and clinical populations by exploring factors that influence physical activity as well as creative ways to promote physical activity among older adults, received a six-month Dean’s Research Grant to conduct his work at Oak Crest.
Two graduate students and one undergraduate student are assisting him.
All will write their own papers; additionally, they will combine to pen a group paper, with Sebastião as lead author, for submission to journals on gerontology and geriatrics. The undergraduate student, meanwhile, will present at the NIU College of Education’s Third Annual Student Research Symposium, scheduled for Friday, April 20.
“My students are learning important elements within the research process – how to design a study, how to select instruments for data collection, how to collect data,” he says. “They’re also learning how to talk with our participants throughout the testing to provide motivation.”
Josh Pak, who is pursuing a master’s degree in exercise physiology, is enjoying his chance to work with the senior citizens.
He believes that his collaboration with Sebastião will equip him well in his eventual career, in which he plans to work with elderly adults on cardiac rehabilitation.
“Some have no idea of how to go about fitness. A lot of them just go around their apartments,” says Pak, who is from Arlington Heights, “but a lot of them surprise me with how much they can do. A lot of them love to be active.”