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“It’s great to grow old”: Dal Health CRC studying physical activity, movement and aging
Dr. Olga Theou has been with the School of Physiotherapy as a Canadian Research Chair since July 2019 – studying aging and what contributes to some people aging better than others.
Dr. Theou started her education in her native country Greece at Aristotle University, studying Physical Education and Sport Science. She then moved to California to complete a Masters in Kinesiology with focus on Aging (Gerokinesiology) at California State University Fullerton. After that, she completed her PhD in Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Western University. Following her PhD, Dr. Theou did a year of postdoc work at UBC Okanagan before coming to Dalhousie to do a postdoc in Geriatric Medicine and receiving a faculty appointment, then moving over to Physiotherapy where she received her CRC.
Dr. Theou wasn’t always planning on working in aging – she used to work with athletes – but an exercise program for older adults at California State University Fullerton showed her how beneficial exercise was for that population.
“With athletes you’re trying to improve 10 percent of their skills, you’re trying to make them slightly better to have a better performance. Then you realize you have to have the same approach when it comes to older adults, but it could be lifechanging. Someone could have mobility problems, but now they can walk up the stairs in their house.”
“When I started seeing how grateful they are, that was the moment that I realized that’s what I want to do.”
Aging starts when you’re young
Dr. Theou says she doesn’t look at aging as something for older people, it’s something that happens across your lifetime, and is important to start thinking about in your 20’s.
“Younger people don’t think it applies to them yet. But after the age of 30, you start to see it, you say ‘I’m not as I used to be 10 years ago.’ From a nutrition level, sleep level, active level, movement level, everyone sees it, they feel like they aren’t as they used to be.”
Dr. Theou says aging isn’t just things like arthritis, it’s energy levels and a person’s level of pain in their body.
“It’s when you get out of bed and you groan; that’s what we are investigating. What made you age faster or slower or at a normal place?”
Dr. Theou says people view it as normal so they don’t look for ways to improve, but it doesn’t have to be normal, especially given that life expectancy is longer than before. She says people need to start with a good baseline.
Growing old is something to celebrate
Dr. Theou says in her research she has found a lot of misinformation about what people need to do to grow older.
“We spend so much energy to live longer, but we don’t want to grow old. We want to live until we’re 80 but we don’t want to look 80.”
She says people have an obsession with youthfulness, pointing to all of the anti-aging products, and says there is a lot of ageism around it.
Dr. Theou says growing old is something to celebrate.
“People worked really hard to grow older and have a longer life expectancy. Don’t be afraid to grow old, it’s great to grow old.”
Any movement matters
Dr. Theou says movement is so important in aging.
“Movement is factorial. If you have a heart problem, you take a pill and it fixes your heart. Movement fixes everything. Your bones, your heart, your brain, it affects all the systems basically.”
She says the problem is that exercise is seen as an intervention, when it should be the gold standard – integrated into our healthcare.
Unfortunately, Dr. Theou says, people associate movement with the gym and lifting weights, which can feel intimidating, but any movement matters.
“We have to get people thinking about how to exercise in a way they want to. Some people like to walk or run; some people like to play sports. It should be social and joyful. We have to change it up and respect people’s wishes.”
She says walking to get your mail, doing active housework, taking the stairs – even just five extra minutes of movement is beneficial.
People might think they are too old to get that movement in, but Dr. Theou says an 80 year old is going to get a lot more benefits from a short walk than a 20 year old will. The younger and fitter you are, the more challenging your movement should be.
Set up to be sedentary
Dr. Theou says a major hurdle in getting moving is that our lives are set up to be about sedentary, with many opportunities to be sitting or idle.
“It’s almost like you have to fight it. Unless you have an occupation that’s very active, you have to fight the system and the environment to be active.”
She says adding in some movement, even with chronic health conditions, can improve a person’s health in a major way.
“If you’re exercising and active with health conditions, you are very close to what’s considered normal aging. For example, if you have diabetes or high heart pressure, you can have an extremely high quality of life if you are exercising.”
Tearing down the silos
Dr. Theou says there are so many opportunities to collaborate around aging.
“That’s the reason I wanted to be a CRC in the first place, my plan was to address aging in an interdisciplinary way, but we are still working in silos in health care.”
She says being in the Faculty of Health and having strong connections to the Faculty of Medicine and the Nova Scotia Health Authority will hopefully give her the opportunity to bring people together from different disciplines.
Dr. Theou says everyone knows we need to exercise, but not everyone is doing it, and healthcare professionals play a big role in letting people know their options.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility – not just physiotherapists in a clinical setting. We need to make it much clearer — there is a solution, whether you choose to use it or not, and there are alternates that would fit their lifestyle.”
Frailty and COVID-19
Dr. Theou is a co-Principal Investigator (with Dr. Kenneth Rockwood) of a project entitled “Understanding how grades of frailty affect the evolution of COVID” which is funded by the Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition.
The purpose of this study is to increase understanding of how frailty affects various key points in the evolution of COVID-19. Their motivation is the duty to make sure that clinical decisions based on the grade of frailty can be justified or modified based on evidence.
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