Take care of yourself physically
Caregivers need to make their physical health a top priority, if they want to maintain their quality of life and give care in a sustainable way. This article explains the toll caregiving can take on physical health and then lists key ways for caregivers to stay healthy.
Effects of caregiving on physical health
Caregivers need to make their physical health a top priority, if they want to maintain their quality of life and give care in a sustainable way. The stress that comes along with many (though not all) caregiving situations can lead to very serious health problems.
Caregivers are twice as likely as non-caregivers to have chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis, and 50% more likely to be obese.1 Those looking after people with dementia are even more likely to have bad health. In addition, strenuous activities such as lifting a person and making beds can cause physical strains and injuries.
Some key ways to stay physically healthy while caregiving are to avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms, get enough exercise, put a high priority on destressing, and learn safe lifting techniques.
Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms
Many caregivers cope with chronic stress by overeating,2 which can lead them to develop obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. In addition, caregivers who smoke are more likely to develop a severe level of cigarette addiction known as tobacco use disorder.3 Research also shows that caregivers use more alcohol, prescription drugs, and non-prescription drugs than non-caregivers.4
To avoid falling into the caregiver overeating trap, keep track of how much and what kinds of food you eat. If the amount or type of food starts to go in an unhealthy direction, take steps to stop this trend by keeping a food diary, getting more respite care so you can destress by taking more breaks, finding emotional support, and thinking of other rewards that will make you feel good.
Track any substance use, including cigarettes, alcohol, non-prescription drugs, prescribed medication, and caffeine. If you see an uptick in your use of any of these substances, immediately find someone to talk to about it, whether it is a family member, friend, therapist, or doctor. Solutions can range from reducing your caregiving workload (and therefore your need to cope) to joining substance-use recovery groups or getting medical treatment.
Put a high priority on destressing
Even if a caregiver doesn’t use unhealthy coping strategies such as overeating, smoking, or use of substances to deal with stress, chronic stress in and of itself can do immense damage to physical health. It does this partly by weakening the immune system over time, which opens the door to colds, flus, heart disease, diabetes, cancers, and immune-system diseases such as arthritis, bowel disease, and lupus.5
Some of the most effective ways to reduce stress levels are to stay active; practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga; laugh; get social support; and practice gratitude.6 All of these activities release feel-good chemicals into the brain and bloodstream, helping to counteract the stress hormone cortisol. Stress pills such as Jamieson Stress Ease, which you can find in the vitamin section of your local drug store, can help a great deal by restoring needed nutrients to stress-depleted adrenal glands.
Most of all, if stress levels are unmanageable, it’s time to change the caregiving arrangements and take some of the load off.
Get enough exercise
Lack of exercise is one of the biggest culprits in poor caregiver health. The majority of caregivers say that their exercising habits are worse than before they started caregiving.7 Caregivers might feel like they are too busy or too exhausted to exercise. For some, depression and burnout are making them so tired that they feel incapable of being active.
However, getting some exercise, or at least being active, is necessary for physical health. Without it, the immune system, metabolism, and bones all get weaker, leading to more illness and injury.8
According to the U.S. government, most adults should do 30 continuous minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, biking on level ground, or swimming, at least five times a week.9 However, for the many caregivers who don’t have this kind of time or lifestyle opportunity, it’s important to remember that something is better than nothing. They can fit exercise into short bursts, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking instead of driving to any close-by stores, and doing home video exercises while the person for whom they are caring is napping.
Learn safe lifting techniques
Ten percent of caregivers report being physically strained from lifting a person and doing other physical caregiving tasks.10 Anyone who needs to shift or lift a person is probably lifting far more than the 35 pounds that safety experts say is the top limit.
Safe lifting techniques involve using the legs instead of the back, keeping abdominal muscles tight, and making sure to communicate with the person being lifted about what will be happening. There are many training videos available online.
In addition, technology can help a great deal. If possible, rent items such as a hospital bed that raises at the head, a wheeled toileting chair that reduces the amount of lifting, and slip sheets that make it easier to slide the person into place.
Adult day care
Anticipate impacts on your personal life
Avoid feeling alone, isolated, or incapable
Balance care responsibilities
Create a care plan
Deal with caregiver burnout
Deal with caregiver depression
Find trusted sources of help
Get help and support
Join a caregiver community
Minimize family confusion, disagreements, and frustration
External supporting content
1The Impact of Caregiving on Caregiver Physical Health. BlueCrossBlueShield.
2The Impact of Caregiving on Caregiver Physical Health. BlueCrossBlueShield.
3The Impact of Caregiving on Caregiver Physical Health. BlueCrossBlueShield.
4Caregiver Health. Family Caregiver Alliance.
5What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out? Cleveland Clinic; 10 Health Problems Related to Stress that You Can Fix. WebMD; Stress, psychological trauma linked to lupus. Harvard School of Public Health.
6How to Hack Your Hormones for a Better Mood. Healthline.com; The Neuroscience Behind Gratitude: How Does Cultivating Appreciation Affect Your Brain? Chopra.com
7Caregiver Health. Family Caregiver Alliance.
8Does Exercise Boost Immunity? Healthline.com
9How much physical activity do adults need? CDC.gov; Metabolic Effects of Exercise.
10Caregiver Health. Family Caregiver Alliance.