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At-Home Exercise Helps Caregivers Care for Themselves

The research reveals that the program can "successfully encourage a stressed and burdened population to engage in physical activity at levels sufficient to produce health benefits," said lead author Cynthia M. Castro, from the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

"The negative impact of likely due, at least in part, to the reduced probability that caregivers engage in preventive health behaviors such as regular physical activity," Castro explained.

Castro said previous research has shown that caregivers are usually prone to problems such as depression, sleep disturbances, compromised immunity, elevated blood pressure and interpersonal strife.

Castro said she and her colleagues recruited 51 women, each of whom lived with and cared for a demented relative at home. The women were at least 50 years of age, did not engage in regular physical activity and provided at least 10 hours of care every week, Castro said.

The research team said each participant received an in-person counseling session with a health educator who provided information and instruction about how to work up to a regular schedule of three or four 30 to 40 minute exercise sessions at home each week. During the next 12 months, each caregiver/counselor team stayed in regular contact through telephone calls and mailed activity logs, according to the researchers.

The team found that although the caregivers provided an average of 71 hours of care every week, 70 percent of them adhered to their exercise programs for a whole year. During this time, the amount and intensity of their exercise, as well as their knowledge of physical activity, significantly increased, according to the study results.

By the end of the year, the women also felt significantly less depression and stress than before they began the exercise program; although their actual burdens did not decrease, their perception of how burdened they felt had greatly improved, the study reported.

Castro said the team also worked with a similar group of 49 caregivers who participated in an at-home nutrition counseling program instead of the exercise program. Because exercise is known to improve psychological as well as physical well-being, the researchers said they expected to see fewer benefits among the nutrition group participants.

However, women engaged in the two programs were equally likely to stay with the programs and experienced similar improvements in their psychological well-being, according to the findings.

"These results confirm that long-term health promotion programs are feasible for a highly stressed and burdened population such as dementia family caregivers," said Castro. "The majority [of women overall] were actively involved in their home-based health promotion program for a minimum of nine to 12 months, with relatively few dropouts compared with other community-based activity intervention trials."

Castro said much of the credit for the programs’ benefits is due to the frequent contact between counselors and caregivers. The women in the exercise group who had the most frequent contact with their counselors also tended to adhere better to their program, she added.

"The additional social support and reduced isolation [the contacts provided] were possibly sufficient to produce the improvements noted in depression and stress," Castro said.

Copyright 2002 Health Resources Publishing

© 2002 Health Resources Publishing