Article Featured on Everyday Health | By Dennis Thompson Jr
We all know that exercise is a key component of good health. But some people think that the older we get the more we should slow down to prevent injury and accidents.
Nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical activity offers older men and women significant benefits, including helping to control arthritis and maintain healthy bones, stamina, and muscle strength, all of which help prevent falls. It also reduces the risk of dying from heart disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
Physical activity may even improve your memory. One study of 120 older adults without dementia, funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), found that moderate aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus (a part of the brain that plays a role in memory) and improved spatial memory, which allows you to recall where things are located on both a short- and long-term basis.
You may wonder, though, if you can really manage a fitness routine at your age. You may think that you’re too out of shape, too sick, or simply too tired to give it a go. Sure, your body may have changed over the years, but there’s no question that you can become stronger, more agile, and healthier than you are today. If you have a chronic condition or haven’t had a physical in years, check with your doctor first. They can tell you if you are able to do any activity you want or if you need to stick to certain activities that are safe for you.
In any case, keeping fit comes down to you and what you’re comfortable with, says Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, a professor of movement sciences at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York City and a registered clinical exercise physiologist who researches the role of exercise in senior health.
“In general, seniors should continue to do what they’ve always enjoyed doing,” Dr. Ewing Garber says. “Really, the caveat is that there may need to be some modifications. If it feels comfortable to you, there’s no reason to change. But if you start to feel insecure, it might be time for a change.”
3 Keys to Fitness Success
For maximum benefit, the NIA recommends fitting in these types of exercise weekly:
“The very easiest exercises are stretching and flexing, and they tend to become more important as people get older,” Ewing Garber says. “[Seniors] tend to have range of motion problems in their joints. These exercises maintain the ability to get around and enjoy your life.” Practices such as yoga or Pilates can improve flexibility; many gyms also offer stretching exercise programs designed for seniors. Try to do some simple stretches, such as these recommended by the NIA, every day.
American Council on Exercise Medical Exercise Specialist Chris Gagliardi also advises doing easy exercises that help maintain and improve your balance. These can be as simple walking backwards and then sideways, and, with your feet together, lifting your heels off the floor and balancing on your toes. “The reality is that we all normally lose some balance and agility as we age,” he explains. “Exercises that promote good balance help maintain your mobility and reduce the risk of falls.”
“Strong muscles are very important to daily living, whether you’re getting out of a chair or carrying groceries,” Ewing Garber says. “Strength training can reduce the rate at which your bones become weaker. If you have a little more muscle around the bone and you fall, it could help prevent a fracture.”
A long-term study of more than 3,600 seniors published in June 2014 in The American Journal of Medicine also suggests that maintaining muscle mass can lengthen life. The study subjects with the most muscle mass were less likely to have died from any cause during a 10- to 16-year follow-up period than other study subjects. In addition, muscle mass was a more important predictor of longevity than body mass index, which is an estimate of how much body fat a person has.
Try to perform strength exercises on your major muscle groups at least twice a week for 30-minute sessions, focusing on your upper body one day and your lower body on another day. Begin with simple exercises that use your body as a weight, such as squats, which strengthen your legs, and wall push-ups, which strengthen your upper body. A good place to start is with the free strength-training program Growing Stronger, developed for older adults by Tufts University and CDC experts.
Getting your heart rate up can benefit your entire body and make it easier for you to perform just about any everyday activity. You should try to engage in moderate-intensity endurance or aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes nearly every day. If 30 minutes at a time seems difficult, start with 10 minutes and build up to three times a day. Brisk walking, swimming, biking, wheelchair rolling, sweeping, skating, and dancing all count as aerobic exercise.
Adapting Your Fitness Activities
Still concerned that you may not be up to it? These tips can help you fit physical fitness into each day without worry:
- Listen to your body. Start slowly and build up gradually. “Exercise at a level where you feel like you’re working a bit, but it shouldn’t feel extremely hard,” Ewing Garber advises. According to the CDC, “Physical activity need not be strenuous to achieve health benefits.” One study published in The Lancet found that people who exercised by walking just 15 minutes a day, or 92 minutes per week, were 14 percent less likely to die from all causes and lived three years longer compared to people who reported engaging in exercise for less than one hour a week.
- Stay focused. “The hard part as people are getting older is they don’t notice that they don’t see as well, react as quickly, or have the same balance,” says Ewing Garber.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Sipping water — even if you may not feel thirsty — helps older people (average age 55) reap the full benefits of exercise, according to research presented in April 2018 at the American Physiological Society’s annual meeting. Staying hydrated is always important, but middle-aged and older adults tend to have a blunted thirst perception, which increases the risk of dehydration.
- Keep an eye on the weather. Seniors may be more vulnerable than others to extreme changes in temperature. Older people can lose heat faster in cold weather than they did when they were younger, putting them at risk for hypothermia, according to the NIA. Similarly, spending too much time outdoors on hot days can put them at risk for hyperthermia, or heat stroke. Be sure to dress appropriately and move inside to exercise when the weather isn’t cooperating.
- Use the proper equipment. Wear a helmet when bicycling and comfortable shoes when running, for example. The right equipment can help prevent injury.
- Be prepared to adapt. Runners may develop knee problems, for example, and have to switch to walking, says Ewing Garber, adding “that can be pretty traumatic for some people.” Fortunately, if you quickly find something else you like, you won’t lose your fitness level.
- Check out Silver Sneakers. More than 60 Medicare insurance plans nationwide participate in the Silver Sneakers program, which provides free gym memberships and exercise classes at parks and recreation centers led by certified instructors who specialize in working with seniors at all levels of ability.
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