Steriani Elavsky: Physical activity is the key to healthy aging

Steriani Elavsky is an associate professor at the University of Ostrava who has spent years researching the benefits that physical movement has on our mental and physical wellbeing. Steriani spent 17 years at the University of Illinois and Pennsylvania State University before continuing her research at the University of Ostrava and is now considered one of the leading Czech specialists in this field. So when she made time for Radio Prague International I began by asking her to enumerate the benefits we get from regular exercise.  

Photo: archive of Steriani Elavsky

“Exercise or physical activity has numerous beneficial effects –it increases our heart rate, breathing rate and as a result of that we produce certain chemicals, neuro-transmitters like serotonin and dopamine that effect our mood. There is a whole array of physiological benefits which are responsible for the fact that we feel well after exercising. We have an elated mood due to the fact that our body has started producing some chemicals in our brain. Among the many psychological benefits that exercising gives us is a new level of confidence, or perceived competence about what we can do; we have a more positive attitude about ourselves and how we view our bodies, which in turn can increase our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and that can also contribute to feeling better and having a better quality of life.”

Would you say that the effect we have seen of the Covid lockdown prove your point about how vitally necessary movement is?

“I would say so. Studies show that there was a decrease in physical activity during the lockdown and, hand in hand with that, there was a decrease in mental health. Of course there are other factors that contribute to mental wellbeing but reduced physical activity is definitely one of them.”

Would you say that Czechs are active or are we a lazy lot?

“I wouldn’t say we are the most or least active nation. I think we are on par with most countries in Europe. We do a lot of sports, but we are not necessarily sufficiently active. Those two things can be true at the same time.”

Photo illustrative: Česká televize,  ČT24

Let me put it this way – are we getting better or worse? Because children spend so much time on their computers these days and they seem to prefer it, to going out to play.

“Yes, but children nowadays are actually engaged in sports as well – to a higher level than ever before. But what is declining is spontaneous physical activity, when the child is not at volleyball or tennis, the remaining hours of the day have become more inactive. That is a new phenomenon”.

You spoke about the physical and mental benefits of being active – is it the same throughout life?

“We benefit from physical activity throughout life, but certain benefits are more important during the different phases of life. So, when we are talking about children and youth we are talking about benefits such as building self-confidence, learning fair-play, learning how to communicate with peers and learning to be socially engaged. As for older adults they are typically worried about two things – loss of independence, that they might start being dependent on someone else and loss of cognitive function – in other words dementia.  Both of those – physical function and cognition – can be enhanced by physical activity. Physical activity is a great preventative measure in terms of slowing the decline that comes with age.”

In this country life expectancy has risen, but not so the number of years spent in good health. Most pensioners spend a lot of time in doctors’ waiting rooms. Do you believe that regular movement is a way to address this problem?

“It is one of the ways to address it. What also contributes to the problem is obesity – so many people are overweight these days. So physical activity would help with that as well, although there are various factors involved in obesity. We do know that people who are life-long exercisers are in better health, feel better and age well –or age better. Physical activity throughout life is the key to more healthy aging.”

Photo illustrative: Fotorech,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Is it any kind of activity? Can it be walking, for instance?

“Walking is a great activity. You do not need anything to do it and it fulfills what we expect from physical activity. Of course, the more active you are the higher the benefits. Studies show that you can get double the benefits by increasing intensity, but that is not necessary to get psychological benefits from physical activity. So walking is great. Just not sitting is very important. The amount of time we spend sitting contributes negatively to our mental health –independently of how physically active we are.”

So staying on the move. What exactly are you recommending?

“For people who are 18 to 65 and even older people without significant limitations –we recommend 150 minutes of physical activity per week at moderate or vigorous intensity. That’s an intensity that allows you to talk in short sentences. Being a little bit out of breath, with an increased heart rate but still being able to hold a conversation in short sentences.”

So yoga would not be considered adequate –that would be too slow, right?

Photo illustrative: 5598375,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“No, yoga wouldn’t meet that requirement. It is not a typical aerobic-type activity.  Of course it depends on what kind of yoga you do. There are types that will give you a good workout. For instance in power yoga you can increase your heart rate to a level that may reach “moderate intensity”. Typically, we wouldn’t consider it the best example of “moderate intensity” exercise. But yoga has other benefits – it helps with balance, flexibility and it can promote the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity – so it helps to promote wellbeing, helps with stress-relief and so on.”

For people starting –is it easier to exercise with someone or alone?

“It is definitely easier to exercise with someone. There are individual needs of course, so if you have a preference to be alone, then that’s what you should do. But, generally, with someone else people are better able to sustain the activity and overcome hurdles. So I would definitely not recommend people who are starting to exercise alone.”

So if I have been fairly inactive and decide to give it a go, twenty minutes a day, when will I feel the benefits?

“You will feel the benefits right after the first walk. If we are talking about a mood-enhancing effect, you will benefit from it for 2-4 hours after that first bout of exercise. Studies show that the mood enhancing effect can last up to 24 or even 48 hours, but that is rare. So there are reasons why we recommend daily activity –or every other day, at the worst - because after that you would be losing most of the benefit of the activity on your mood.”

And physically – if I am exercising for back pain and doing the right exercises – when can I expect an improvement?

“You need to give it 8 to 12 weeks to really see the effects. People need to give it a while. Of course, I understand that they need to see improvement to be motivated to continue. In many ways today’s technologies are very useful in this respect because you can track your progress. So you look back and say –three weeks ago I was only able to do this much and now I can do this much – that is very important feedback.”

Sometimes people get addicted to working out or jogging – can there be too much of a good thing?

Photo illustrative: Energie Fitness,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“Yes, but that is true of a very small number of people. Those are special, extreme cases and I would say most people don’t have to worry about that. We have the opposite problem. Over-exercising is only a problem when it takes over someone’s life to the point that they are neglecting other important areas of life. But as I said, that’s very rare.”

You have worked with many groups of people in your research – can you mention a case where you were impressed by the result – where it really changed someone’s life?

“I would say that most of the studies that we undertook with older adults showed impressive results. We typically recruit people who are insufficiently active – they are often old and frail when we start working with them and we see, even after three or four weeks, that they are increasing their capacity, they are feeling more confident. Just the fact that they believe they can do something is a huge psychological shift for them. In old age that may be even more important than what we can measure on some machine – the fact that they are confident they can walk to the store and back by themselves or put away their groceries on their own – and we can achieve that with physical activity.”

I suppose it is best to instill these habits at an early age. Is there a national strategy which would implement the outcome of your research and get the benefits out there?

Photo: Jiří Čondl,  Czech Radio

“We are starting to work on this. I would say that in the Czech Republic these things are a little bit slower than in the United States, but yes, we do have a strategy and a goal to engage children in more physical activity. Part of it involves working with schools and making sure that the curricula requires that a certain portion of the school day is spent on physical activity. In the Czech Republic right now we only require two hours of physical activity per week which is really not very much and we hope that in the future we can change that.”

What forms of physical activity are most popular in this country? What do Czechs like doing most?

“I would say that walking is one of the most common activities. And, with the Covid pandemic, what happened was that people actually started going outdoors more, which is very positive. Walking outdoors, hiking or running have certainly increased in popularity in the last couple of years.”

Photo illustrative: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

And I suppose that has additional benefits in the form of clean air….

“Yes, if you have it. I’m from Ostrava which is not the best place for it. But also the fact that you are looking at greenery, because the green colour has also been shown to have benefits.”