Seniors Benefit from Safe, Regular Exercise
Experts agree that you’re never too old to start doing some form of exercise, and that it’s good to stay as active as possible. In fact, studies have shown that being physically active on a regular basis is one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself, both physically and mentally. It can help lower stress and may help reduce feelings of depression. Studies also suggest that exercise can improve or maintain some aspects of cognitive function, such as your ability to shift quickly between tasks, plan an activity, and ignore irrelevant information. Even if you have a chronic illness, like diabetes, arthritis or cancer, regular moderate exercise can help you feel better and function independently longer.
Four types of exercise
Older adults who are inactive lose ground in four areas that are important for staying healthy and independent: strength, balance, flexibility and endurance. Research suggests that you can maintain or at least partially restore these four areas through exercise and physical activity. If you want to stay healthy and independent, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends four types of exercises:
- Strength exercises build stronger muscles and increase metabolism, which helps to keep your weight and blood sugar in check. Lifting weights or using a resistance band can increase strength and improve balance. Strength Exercises
- Balance exercises build leg muscles and can help to prevent falls and related disabilities. According to the NIH, U.S. hospitals have 300,000 admissions for broken hips each year, many of them seniors, and falling is often the cause. Balance exercises can improve your ability to control and maintain your body’s position, whether you are moving or still. Lower Body & Balance Exercises
- Stretching exercises can give you more flexibility and freedom of movement, which allows you to stay limber, be more active and perform more of your daily tasks on your own. Stretching exercises alone will not improve your endurance or strength. Stretching Exercises
- Endurance exercises are activities that increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time. They help to improve the health of your heart, lungs and circulatory system and make it easier for you to do everyday tasks. Examples include walking, jogging, swimming, dancing, biking or climbing stairs. You should build up your endurance gradually, starting with as little as 5 minutes of activity at a time. Endurance exercises
The goal is to be creative and choose from each of the four types of exercise each day. Variety will help you enjoy the benefits of each type of exercise, as well as reduce the risk for injury.
“Taking it easy” can be more risky than physical activity and exercise. When older people lose the ability to do things on their own, usually it isn’t just because they’ve aged, it’s because they’re not active. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease, and lack of physical activity also can lead to more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations, and more use of medicines for a variety of illnesses.
For many older adults, brisk walking, riding a bike, swimming, weight lifting, and gardening are safe, especially if you build up slowly. But, check with your doctor if you are over 50 and you aren’t used to energetic activity or think it might be dangerous because of pre-existing conditions or any new symptom you haven’t discussed with your doctor.
Here are six things you can do to make sure you are exercising safely:
- Start slowly, especially if you haven’t been active for a long time. Build up your activities and how hard you work at them a little at a time.
- Don’t hold your breath during strength exercises. That could cause changes in your blood pressure. You should breathe out as you lift something and breathe in as you relax.
- Use safety equipment. For example, wear a helmet for bike riding or the right shoes for walking or jogging.
- Unless your doctor has asked you to limit fluids, be sure to drink plenty of liquids when you are exercising. Many older adults don’t feel thirsty even if their bodies need fluids.
- Always bend forward from the hips, not the waist. If you keep your back straight, you’re probably bending the right way. If your back “humps,” that’s probably wrong.
- Warm up your muscles before you stretch. Try walking and light arm pumping first.
Exercise should not hurt or make you feel really tired. You might feel some soreness, a little discomfort, or a bit weary, but you should not feel pain. In fact, in many ways, being active will probably make you feel better.
Physical Activity or Exercise?
Some people may wonder what the difference is between physical activity and exercise. Physical activities are activities that get your body moving such as gardening, walking the dog and taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Exercise is a form of physical activity that is specifically planned, structured, and repetitive such as weight training, tai chi, or an aerobics class. Including both in your life will provide health benefits that can help you feel better and enjoy life more as you age.
If you are a very social person who needs a lot of encouragement, exercise with a friend and challenge each other to keep going. Regardless of what fitness program you’re following, keep track of your progress. Keep a chart on the refrigerator with your progress towards your goals. Keep a picture of yourself there to remind you why you are doing this. Remember to reward yourself when you reach a goal. Take a vacation, spend a day at the spa, or buy a new outfit—whatever it takes to keep you motivated.
The primary NIH organization for research on Exercise for Seniors is the National Institute on Aging. The following links will provide additional information.