The benefits of physical activity for people of all ages are often touted, but is it safe for seniors to exercise? According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, almost all older people can benefit from more physical activity. In fact, regular exercise prevents chronic disease, improves mood and lowers chances of injury.
As we age, our bodies take a little longer to repair themselves, but moderate physical activity is good for people of all ages and ability levels. In fact, for most people, the benefits of exercising regularly far outweigh the risks. Even older individuals with chronic illnesses can find ways to work out safely. Many medical conditions can be improved through physical exercise, including Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, heart disease, diabetes, constipation, high blood pressure and obesity.
Benefits of Physical Activity
Regular exercise provides a myriad of health benefits, including improvements in blood pressure and blood sugar management, reduced amounts of lipids in the blood, better bone and joint health, and long-term preservation of neuro-cognitive function.
Other positive effects of physical activity include:
- Boosted Immune Function. A healthy, strong body fights off infection and disease more easily and more quickly. Rather than sapping energy reserves entirely, recovery from an illness will take less of a toll on the body if the person exercises regularly.
- Better Respiratory and Cardiovascular Function. Frequent physical activity lowers the risk of heart disease and reduces blood pressure. Strong lungs and airways and a healthy heart and vascular system allow the body to function properly and more efficiently clear out and destroy any invaders that can make us sick.
- Strong Bones. Exercise protects against bone loss. Higher bone density reduces the risk of osteoporosis and lowers the risk of falls and broken bones. While men do lose some bone mass as they age, post-menopausal women are particularly susceptible and can lose as much as 2 percent bone mass each year. Research done at Tufts University shows that strength training can dramatically reduce this loss, restore bones, and contribute to better balance and less fractures.
- Improved Gastrointestinal Function. Regular exercise helps boost the metabolism, promotes the efficient elimination of waste and encourages digestive health. Physical activity is an excellent “treatment” for people who suffer from slow digestion and constipation.
- Protection Against Chronic Conditions. Physical activity lowers the risk of developing serious conditions and can actually minimize some symptoms after certain conditions have already developed. For example, exercise is vital for helping individuals with conditions like dementia and Parkinson’s disease to maintain their balance and coordination and extend their functional independence.
A consistent exercise schedule is also associated with decreased mortality and age-related morbidity in older adults. In addition, a study by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that seniors who exercised experienced improvements in functional reach and balance and reduced the participants’ fears of falling.
What Exercises Can Seniors Do?
Trendy, rigorous exercise regimens that younger generations participate in simply are not safe or realistic for many seniors. However, this does not mean that older individuals are unable to partake in physical activities. Limited endurance is often the reason why seniors are unable to tolerate aerobic exercise routines on a regular basis. But while age-related changes in the cardiovascular system have significant effects on performance, it has been estimated that half of this reduction in endurance can be related to decreased muscle mass. For these reasons, the ideal senior exercise regimen consists of the following three components, which can be adapted for anyone’s unique stamina and abilities.
- Aerobic and Endurance Exercises
Physicians recommend 30 minutes of cardiorespiratory endurance exercise each day for seniors in order to elevate heart rate and speed up breathing. Walking, stationary cycling and swimming are all examples of cardio/endurance exercises. If tiring easily is an issue, especially for those who are resuming a routine or just starting to exercise, it is perfectly acceptable to do three 10-minute periods of exercise spread out over the course of the day.
Cardiorespiratory endurance exercise increases the body’s ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues and remove waste over sustained periods of time. After sticking with a regimen for a few weeks, there will likely be an improvement in one’s ability to exercise and perform everyday tasks without getting winded and tired.
- Strength and Resistance Training
Strength training uses and builds muscles through repetitive motions. Seniors can do strength training with weights, resistance bands, and nautilus machines or by using walls, the floor and furniture for resistance. Bodyweight exercises or calisthenics (lunges, sit-ups, leg raises, etc.) are also convenient options since they do not require any specialized equipment. Two to three strength/resistance training workouts a week will provide the greatest benefits. Exercise all muscle groups by doing one or two sets of 10 to 15 repetitions at moderate intensity. Individuals can progressively increase the size of weights (or levels of resistance) used during workouts as their strength builds.
Strength training helps prevent the loss of bone mass and improves balance, which helps seniors avoid falls and broken bones.
- Stretching and Flexibility Exercises
Stretching is vital to an exercise regimen. This process helps muscles warm up and cool down gradually, improves and maintains flexibility, prevents injury, and reduces muscle soreness and stiffness. Stretching can also function as a time for meditation and appreciation of how one’s body is feeling. Body and muscle awareness are useful skills that assist in safe mobility and physical activities.
Activities like yoga and Pilates can provide both useful stretches and strength training because they focus on isolating and developing different muscle groups. A number of exercise programs focus on developing a strong core, a term which refers to the set of muscles connecting the inner stomach to the lower back and spine. Because core muscles provide the foundation for all movement, strength in this area encourages better posture and balance and reduces widespread muscle pain.
Physical Activities for Individuals with Limited Experience and Abilities
There are people of all ages whose physical abilities are limited by medical conditions, injuries or general frailty. These individuals have to exercise more carefully than others, but with proper instruction and guidance, they can learn activities and exercises that improve mobility and strength. Exercise is even more important for these individuals since they are more prone to inactivity, which increases the risk of obesity, illness, falling and broken bones.
Exercise classes in group settings that are supervised by trained professionals are ideal for those with specific limitations. Teachers and trainers can offer real-time modifications of each move, and personal trainers can develop and/or recommend entire regimens for specific improvements despite one’s unique challenges. Swimming, yoga and water aerobics are excellent low-impact options that are less jarring to the body. The local YMCA, YWCA and senior centers are good places to start when looking for exercise programs that address special needs.
Before beginning a new exercise regimen or resuming one, it is always advisable to discuss it with a physician first. The doctor will make recommendations regarding appropriate physical activities and those that should be avoided.