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Getting more active in care homes

How volunteers stepped up to keep older people fitter and more active in care

It's long been known that keeping physically active in later years can help improve your health and reduce the risk of incidents like falls. Often in care homes older people can lose muscle strength and condition as they adjust to a new way of life.


Stephen Lim a consultant geriatrician at University Southampton NHS Foundation Trust (UHSFT) has done work previously working out if it was possible to train volunteers in older peoples' hospital wards to do limited exercises to help keep them stronger as they recovered. That research showed it was possible and it got Stephen thinking about if it was possible to do that for older people in care homes.


Dr Lim worked alongside, Drs Ether Clift and Sam Meredith, to introduce a volunteer exercise programme with the care home group Brendoncare and Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.


Initially training sessions were planned to be face to face, but then Covid struck and the team had to rethink their approach. They filmed a series of online videos to help to train volunteers remotely given the restrictions in place. (you can see the results below)

So what happened? Here's Stephen's summary

We found that we could train volunteers to support older people during the COVID-19 pandemic to stay active by performing exercises that help strengthen their muscles.


Trained volunteers from Brendoncare led the online group exercises for older people who attended online community clubs during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a challenging time when social distancing and lockdown rules were in place, which limited opportunities for older people to stay active.


We recruited 19 volunteers, and 15 volunteers completed the training. The volunteers were mainly female (78%), with an average age of 68 years. The exercises were seated exercises and older adults were given exercise bands to increase the exercise intensity. Halfway through the study, lockdown restrictions were lifted, and some groups continued the group exercise in a face-to-face setting. The volunteers led 184 group weekly exercise sessions (127 online and 57 in-person). 30 older adults participated in the group exercises.


We interviewed volunteers, older adults and Brendoncare staff to find out more about what they thought of the online group exercise. The older adults enjoyed the intervention and understood the benefits of exercising. Additionally, they felt that they could exercise in a relaxed way with their peers without fear of being judged.

(image a couple taking part in online exercise via zoom)

The group exercises helped reduce social isolation and motivated older adults to engage with the exercises. Volunteers were enthusiastic to support the exercise groups. They appreciated the training and opportunity to lead the group exercises. One volunteer reported that the role gave her a sense of purpose by playing an active role the community club. Brendoncare staff members were a great help to the older adults and supported them with any issues, in particular those who were less familiar with the internet.


At six months, we found that older adults who participated in the group exercise had an improved physical activity level. The time spent in light physical activity per week improved from an average of 1530 minutes per week to 1620 minutes per week. Only two minor incidents happened during the group exercises. Two participants experienced worsening of old injuries while performing the exercises.


Overall, we found that volunteers can be trained to lead online group seated exercises. The exercises were safe and older adults enjoyed the exercises as well as the social interaction in the group setting.


What did people have to say about it?

Volunteer quote:

“We do it because we want to help others…. we enjoy it. I'm gonna go back to belonging again, I feel that I'm benefiting from the group. Because again, I feel like I belong to that group….. I get so much out of it.”
Exercise Club Member:
‘We are not self-conscious when they (volunteers) are around. We have a laugh as well.’
Exercise Club Member:
‘I’ve really enjoyed it because it keeps you in touch with people, especially during this COVID….. I still feel as if I’m part of a group.’

(image Physiotherapist, Dr Sam Meredith demonstrating chair based exercises)

So what happened next?

Firstly Brendoncare has started to actively recruit volunteers to help keep the exercise programmes going in their homes.


Secondly, the research team has started a project to see how exercise, nutrition and behaviour change support for older people living with frailty - can help them stay active and eat well when they are discharged from the hospital.


If you'd like to see the full details of the project see its' web page


If you would like to know more contact us at arcwessex@soton.ac.uk

If you conduct a study to explore a multimodal intervention consisting of exercise, nutrition and behaviour change support, to engage with older people living with frailty who have been discharged from hospital, to stay active and eat well.


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