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'More than physical health': Gym helps 91-year-old battle isolation

Heidi de Marco, Kaiser Health News, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

MONROVIA, Calif. -- Most mornings, like clockwork, you could find Art Ballard pumping iron.

At least five days a week, he drove to Foothill Gym, where he beat on the punching bag, rode a stationary bike and worked his abs. After he joined the gym five years ago, he dropped 20 pounds, improved his balance and made friends.

At 91, he's still spry and doesn't take any medication other than an occasional Tylenol for aches and pains.

"Doctors love me," he said.

But when California enacted a statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March, his near-daily physical exercise and social interactions abruptly ended.

Ballard's health started to deteriorate: His back hurt, his legs cramped and he started becoming short of breath. As happens too often with older people, he also started to feel isolated and depressed.

 

"I was deeply concerned for myself because I didn't have an exercise routine at home," he said.

The University of Southern California's Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research conducted an analysis in late March, as the coronavirus established a foothold in the U.S., that found that older adults over 60 who lived alone were more likely to report feeling anxious or depressed than those living with companions.

The combination of the pandemic and nationwide lockdown orders put this already vulnerable population at greater risk, said Julie Zissimopoulos, co-director of the aging and cognition program at USC's Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. Social distancing measures have weakened the support systems that older people who live alone depend on for basic activities, such as help with grocery shopping and transportation to doctor appointments.

"There's a huge, disproportionate impact on older adults with this virus and the health outcomes," said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. "During this shutdown, we've had growing public health and community acknowledgement of how serious it can be to sever the ties with our network."

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