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Regular exercise helps family caregivers improve fitness and reduce stress, study finds

REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
More than 44 million Americans — about one in six adults — are providing unpaid personal assistance to an ill or disabled relative.

Regular exercise helps reduce the stress of family members who are caring for relatives with Alzheimer’s or other dementia and may also help improve the caregivers’ long-term health, according to a small study published online recently in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

The effects were found with a relatively modest exercise regime: 40 minutes of aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) three times a week.

“I am hoping that a new focus on the family caregiver will emerge out of this research,” said Eli Puterman, the study’s lead author and a kinesiologist at the University of British Columbia, in a released statement. “We need to design interventions that help caregivers take care of their bodies and their minds, and provide the type of support that’s needed to maintain that long-term.”

Helping family caregivers take care of themselves is an urgent and growing health issue. Studies have shown that family caregivers are at an increased risk for significant health problems, including a 60 percent higher risk of developing heart disease.

And there are many family caregivers in our midst. More than 44 million Americans — about one in six adults — are providing unpaid personal assistance (an average of 24 hours of care a week) to an ill or disabled relative, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. Most of them — 34 million — are caring for an elderly family member, often someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Those numbers are expected to grow dramatically as the baby boomer generation continues to age.

Study details

For the study, Puterman and his colleagues, which included researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, recruited 68 caregivers, aged 50 to 75, who were living in the San Francisco Bay Area. All were providing at least 10 hours a week of unpaid care to a family member with Alzheimer’s or other dementia. None had serious health problems.

To be eligible for the study, the participants had to have high levels of chronic stress (determined through a screening questionnaire) and to be physically inactive (defined as not exercising within the previous six months at the minimum levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

The 68 participants were randomly divided into two groups. One — the “control” group — was asked to not alter their activity levels. The other was asked to engage in aerobic exercise for 40 minutes three to five times a week. To help them achieve this goal, they were given free access to a gym and were also assigned a fitness coach, whom they met with weekly. They also received five text messages a week reminding them to exercise.

The participants were followed for six months. Eighty-one per cent of those in the exercise group stuck to at least 120 minutes of exercise per week for the full duration of the study. (The participants wore wrist accelerometers, which objectively tracked how long and how often they exercised.)

Stronger hearts — and chromosomes

By the end of the study, the cardiorespiratory fitness and body mass index (BMI) of the exercise group had improved significantly compared to that of the “control” group.

The exercise group reported considerably lower levels of psychological stress as well.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the caregivers in the exercise group tended to have longer telomeres in their white blood cells at the end of the six months.

Telomeres are the protective ends of chromosomes. (They are often compared to the plastic tips that protect shoelaces from fraying.) If telomeres become too short, the DNA packaged inside the chromosomes ends up damaged and cells may be unable to duplicate themselves — a situation that has been shown to be predictive of heart disease and other health problems. Telomeres shorten naturally with age, but they can also lose length due to smoking, lack of exercise, a poor diet and other factors.

The current study’s finding regarding telomere length suggests that regular participation in aerobic exercise may be able to slow or even reverse the shortening of telomeres in people who are under a great deal of stress — perhaps by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, say the researchers.

Limitations and implications

This study comes with many caveats. It included only a small number of caregivers, and most were white, older women. All of them were also willing and able to enter into a long-term exercise program. The findings might not have been the same if the participants had been greater in number, more diverse and/or less motivated.

Still, plenty of research has demonstrated the physical and psychological benefits of regular exercise.  The current study suggests that a regular exercise program may be particularly helpful for caregivers — and perhaps others — who are experiencing high levels of daily stress.

“What caregivers need is support for healthy behaviors, because that is one of the first things to drop when you become a family caregiver,” said Puterman. “The time to take care of yourself just goes out the window.”

For more information: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Psychoneuroendocrinology website, but the full study is behind a paywall. If you’re a family caregiver, you can find information on how to take better care of your own health  — including tips on exercising — on the Family Caregiver Alliance website.

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