Caregivers: Don't Neglect Your Own Health

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 2, 2001 -- Today many older women are charged with looking after chronically ill or disabled relatives, and the responsibility can take a serious toll on the caregiver's own health and well-being. But a new study reveals that moderate exercise can really make a difference -- regulating blood pressure, easing stress, and promoting more-restful sleep.

"Despite the many benefits of regular moderate-intensity physical activity, less than 25% of middle- and older-aged adults, including family caregivers, are regularly active enough to achieve these benefits," write Abby C. King, PhD, and colleagues in the January 2002 issue of Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. King is with the department of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

King and colleagues looked at 100 inactive women without heart disease, aged 49 to 82, who were the primary caregivers for relatives with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Each woman received either exercise instruction or nutritional counseling at home. The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

The exercise group performed four 30- to 40-minute workouts each week. While most of the women took brisk walks, those unable to leave the house performed indoor exercises custom-tailored to their personal preferences and abilities. There were no serious exercise-related injuries during the study.

After one year, although the women in the nutrition group were eating better, and both groups were eating fewer calories each day, only the women who'd been exercising showed marked improvements in their overall health and heart disease risk factors. The exercise group also had lower blood pressure in response to stress and reported much more restful sleep.

"This is an important study given that many U.S. households eventually will provide care to ill or disabled relatives," says Sidney M. Stahl, MD, of the National Institute on Aging, in a news release. It provides "evidence that a self-directed exercise program can reduce stress reactions and improve the health of caregivers." He says the results are encouraging and provide "hope for a low-cost, effective means to combat caregiver stress."