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Respiratory Health Q4 2021

Why inactivity is causing long term health consequences

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Carol Stonham, MBE

Executive Chair, Primary Care Respiratory Society

After months of inactivity, many people who have been shielding are now less active because of COVID-19 restrictions and are finding it more difficult to look after themselves.

A legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is rarely discussed, is deconditioning – the decline in physical function of the body as a result of physical inactivity and/or an extremely sedentary lifestyle. Alongside those who have suffered acute COVID-19 and long COVID, many older people often with chronic conditions have been significantly more inactive over the last 12 months. This has resulted in what is known as deconditioning.

The effects of deconditioning can be reversed over time given appropriate support and guidance.

The consequences of deconditioning

Deconditioning increases the risk of disability, frailty and dementia, all of which can have a significant impact on healthcare and social care services. Quality of life can also be significantly impacted, people with long term conditions such as COPD and asthma that were previously able to care for themselves are now less able to undertake simple tasks such as walking to the post office, gardening and other activities. A common presentation of deconditioning is increased breathlessness. 

There has been a great deal of media attention on managing the symptoms of long COVID and mental health issues. However, there remain huge health consequences for those people who have been shielding and those with a chronic illness who have been unable to be as active as they were previously.

Improving health after deconditioning

The effects of deconditioning can be reversed over time given appropriate support and guidance. Alongside the excellent support by our primary care services, there needs to be a new attitude in support of social prescribing and exercise/movement programmes as a prescription for health. 

We need to support and help people to do more for themselves and help boost confidence, self-esteem and quality of life. Exercise and movement programmes should be tailored to the needs of the individual with achievable goals that can be easily adapted into the person’s lifestyle such as, walking to the end of the garden or participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation group. 

Medicalisation of treatment isn’t necessary and a joint approach of health, social and activity services will enable people to reverse the effects of deconditioning and improve physical and mental symptoms.

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