Before the Covid pandemic hit in 2020, Millie Howell led a comfortable, independent life into her 80s.

At age 83, she met friends for bridge, sang in a choir, and drove herself to errands every day.  She wasn’t running marathons or pumping iron, but she worked part-time at her custom window business and took care of her four-bedroom house by herself. 

But like many Americans, she withdrew during the COVID lockdown from anything that could expose her to the virus.  She had groceries delivered, canceled appointments, and stayed in her house.  She even stopped running the vacuum.

Last fall, after 18 months of isolation, Millie realized that although she had avoided COVID, she still was very weak.  She fell several times and ended up in the hospital.  

A chair stand (Photo credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

 “Studies are emerging suggesting many older adults, particularly those living with a chronic medical problem, experienced loss of mobility and functional status [the ability to perform daily tasks independently] during the pandemic. Increased isolation and lack of access to exercise facilities or group classes during lockdown periods are likely contributors,” explains Dr. Camille P. Vaughn, Director of the Emory Center for Health in Aging.

Now that COVID restrictions are lifting, many older adults are finding that it’s time to start working on their physical conditioning to recover strength and flexibility.  But it’s not as easy as it was when we were young.  

“It is reasonable to schedule a visit with your primary care provider to determine if an assessment with a rehabilitation specialist, such as a physical or occupational therapist, would be helpful,” Vaughn said.    “Online resources such as those recommended by the National Institute on Aging are also available and tailored to the needs of older adults with different mobility needs.”

Millie is my mother, and at 85, she needed a walker to get around.  She started physical therapy and moved in with a family member who could get her to appointments and watch over her.  

Millie Howell in physical therapy

“Literally any age can build muscles.  It might just be a little slower than when you’re 20,” explained Spencer Baron, Physical Therapist and Clinic Director at PT Solutions in Decatur. “The biggest barrier with exercise is that you don’t have an immediate result.  It takes about six weeks at a minimum for gains to be measurable.  But there are professionals out there who can help you get to your goals in a safe way.”

Programs across Atlanta are designed to help seniors get and stay strong.  YMCA locations host classes and many parks and recreation centers offer chair aerobics, water aerobics, and conditioning for seniors.  

“One simple exercise is to do is a chair stand, also called a chair rise,” Vaughn said. A chair stand is moving from a sitting to a standing position. 

“Chair stands help to strengthen the thigh and buttocks muscles and will improve stamina.  As one’s strength grows, try to do chair stands without having to use hands.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends chair stands to prevent falls as well.  

Other popular options include Tai Chi, walking (and remember to use an assistive device if it has been recommended by a physical therapist or your primary care clinician), water aerobics, and use of a stationary bike, particularly a recumbent bike, which can be easier to use in the presence of mobility impairment.”

I’m happy to say that Millie, a self-proclaimed “stubborn broad,” now is on the mend after five months of hard work. 

The walker is in the closet.  We haven’t seen her vacuum yet, but I think there are other reasons for that.

Shelly Howell

Shelly Howell is the author of "Don’t be a Wuss: Inspiration for Creating a Great Life after 60."