Whistler’s population of senior citizens is really something special.
They are so special they were the subject of a medical research study by doctors at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver General Hospital just over a year ago.
“You’re not actually typical when it comes to North America,” said Dr. Ken Madden during a recent presentation of the study’s results. “There are some things that are good to not be normal and this is one of them.”
He was speaking to a handful of members of the local Seniors Ski Team. Fifty of the 250 member ski team signed up to be part of the research Madden and his colleague Dr. Jocelyn Chase conducted in late 2011 and early 2012.
The research looked specifically at the way that inactivity, or sedentary time, affects overall health and Madden explained nobody has yet to study those connections in seniors, who are typically considered to be more sedentary than younger adults.
But these aren’t your typical senior citizens. David Malaher with the Senior Ski Team has been thinking that very thing for a while. Malaher said he was hoping there would be a potential research possibility that could look at the incredibly active local group and ended up connecting with Madden for the project.
“I have been trying for five years to find out if there is something examinable in this group of seniors in terms of medical research,” Malaher said, who has been with the ski team for eight years.
The research involved the use of accelerometers, which seniors wore on their arm for 24 hours a day over an entire week. The devices measured activity levels and before and after researchers took blood to measure various indicators like sugar levels and cholesterol.
“We wanted a population skewed toward being happy and healthy and you guys definitely were,” Madden said to the ski team, adding with a laugh that the survey results also showed the group’s average alcohol consumption to be moderate to heavy. “You guys do drink a little bit.”
The local seniors were on average 71.5 years old and the average level of activity was in the upper limits with an average of 157 minutes a day in moderate to vigorous activity. Sedentary time averaged 1,047 minutes a day, including sleep.
Madden said research has found that sedentary time is a stronger influence on obesity than exercise. While recommended activity levels are 2.5 hours a week for adults, or half an hour a day, it is what people do for the remaining 23.5 hours of the day that matters more in terms of negative health effects.
In other words, meeting minimum exercise requirements does not cancel out the negative health risks associated with being inactive the rest of the time. The local group provided the researchers with an opportunity to look at a population with higher sedentary levels that were also regularly active to examine whether or not inactivity is more of a risk factor for health than activity.
When Madden crunched all the numbers the only correlation found between sedentary time with the Whistler seniors was LDL, or bad cholesterol levels. Even though the Whistler seniors were very active, the longer they were inactive during the day affected cholesterol.
“It seems like the amount of activity you are doing every day is fixing most things,” Madden said, referring to other health indicators like waist circumference and glucose levels. “That is interesting … even in a group with high activity levels, sedentary time is affecting you.”
He said the early consensus of the research is that people should not sit longer than half an hour at a stretch. Madden added more research is planned into this area of study and how breaking up sedentary time can influence health.
Madden said he is interested in the area of study because it is something that is easy to fix through lifestyle choices.
The work comes out of the fact that obesity and its related health effects are on the rise. In North America alone it is predicted that by 2020 two thirds of the population will be obese or overweight according to the body mass index.
But 25 years ago, Madden pointed out there was still fast food readily available, so the question is “what is happening for these diseases to double,” and the answer is that exercise has decreased.
“Activity is being engineered away,” he said.
But current guidelines for daily activity may not be making a difference in the fight against obesity because of the strong correlation of sedentary behaviour to negative health effects. The work that Madden is pursuing will hopefully give all adults, not just seniors, a better idea of what level and frequency of mild, moderate and vigorous activity is needed throughout the day to make a difference.