Story By Cindy Black
As you grow older, an active lifestyle is more important than ever. Regular exercise can help you boost your energy, maintain your independence and manage symptoms of illness or pain. Exercise can even reverse some of the symptoms of aging.
Exercise is not only good for your body but also good for your mind, mood and memory. Whether you are generally healthy or are managing an illness, there are plenty of ways to get more active, improve your confidence and boost your fitness levels.
If you don’t know where to begin, you’re not alone. Many seniors feel discouraged by fitness barriers, such as chronic health conditions or concerns about injury or falls. If you’ve never exercised before, perhaps you think you’re too old or frail to start.
The truth is that you can’t afford not to get moving. Exercise is the key to staying strong, energetic and healthy as you get older. No matter your age or your current physical condition, you can benefit from exercise. Reaping the rewards of exercise doesn’t require strenuous workouts. It’s about adding more movement and activity to your life, even in small ways. Whether you are generally healthy or are managing an illness — even if you’re housebound — there are many easy ways to get your body moving and improve your health.
5 Myths about Exercise and Older Adults
Myth 1: There’s no point to exercising. I’m going to get old anyway.
Fact: Exercise and strength training help you look and feel younger and stay active longer. Regular physical activity lowers your risk for a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure and obesity.
Myth 2: Elderly people shouldn’t exercise. They should save their strength and rest.
Fact: Research shows that a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy for the elderly. Period. Inactivity often causes seniors to lose the ability to do things on their own and can lead to more hospitalizations, doctor visits and use of medicines for illnesses.
Myth 3: Exercise puts me at risk of falling down.
Fact: Regular exercise, by building strength and stamina, prevents loss of bone mass and improves balance, actually reducing your risk of falling.
Myth 4: It’s too late. I’m already too old to start exercising
Fact: You’re never too old to exercise! If you’ve never exercised before, or it’s been a while, start with light walking and other gentle activities.
Myth 5: I’m disabled. I can’t exercise sitting down.
Fact: Chair-bound people face special challenges but can lift light weights, stretch and do chair aerobics to increase range of motion, improve muscle tone and promote cardiovascular health.
The Whole-Body Benefits of Exercise for Seniors
Physical health benefits
• Exercise helps seniors maintain or lose weight. As metabolism naturally slows with age, maintaining a healthy weight is a challenge. Exercise helps increase metabolism and builds muscle mass, helping to burn more calories. When your body reaches a healthy weight, overall wellness improves.
• Exercise reduces the impact of illness and chronic disease. Among the many benefits of exercise for seniors include improved immune function, better heart health and blood pressure, improved bone density and better digestive functioning. Seniors who exercise also have a lowered risk of several chronic conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and colon cancer.
• Exercise enhances mobility, flexibility and balance in seniors. Exercise improves your strength, flexibility and posture, which in turn will help with balance, coordination and reducing the risk of falls. Strength training also helps alleviate the symptoms of chronic conditions such as arthritis.
Mental health benefits
• Exercise improves your sleep. Poor sleep is not an automatic consequence of aging, and quality sleep is important for your overall health. Exercise often improves sleep, helping you fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply.
• Exercise boosts mood and self-confidence. Endorphins produced by exercise actually can help you feel better and reduce feelings of sadness or depression. Being active and feeling strong naturally helps you feel more self-confident and sure of yourself.
• Exercise is good for the brain. Exercise benefits regular brain functions and helps keep the brain active, which can prevent memory loss, cognitive decline and dementia. Exercise may even help slow the progression of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Tips for Getting Started Safely
Committing to a routine of physical activity is one of the healthiest decisions you can make. Before you get moving, though, consider how best to be safe.
• Get medical clearance. Consult your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have a preexisting condition. Ask if there are any activities you should avoid.
• Consider health concerns. Keep in mind how your ongoing health problems affect your workouts. For example, diabetics may need to adjust the timing of medication and meal plans when setting an exercise schedule. Above all, if something feels wrong, such as sharp pain or unusual shortness of breath, simply stop. You may need to scale back or try another activity.
• Start slow. If you haven’t been active in a while, it can be harmful to go “all out.” Instead, build up your exercise program little by little. Try spacing workouts in ten-minute increments twice a day. Or try just one class each week. Prevent crash-and-burn fatigue by warming up, cooling down and keeping water handy. Hire a personal trainer to guide you safely and effectively.
• Commit to an exercise schedule. Stick to it for at least three or four weeks so that it becomes habit and force yourself to stick with it.
• Stay motivated by focusing on short-term goals. Focus on goals such as improving your mood and energy levels and reducing stress, rather than goals such as weight loss, which can take longer to achieve.
• Recognize problems. Exercise should never hurt or make you feel lousy. Stop exercising immediately and call your doctor if you feel dizzy or short of breath, develop chest pain or pressure, break out in a cold sweat or experience pain. Also stop if a joint is red, swollen or tender to touch.
Tips for Building a Balanced Exercise Plan
Staying active is not a science. Just remember that mixing different types of exercise helps both reduce monotony and improve your overall health. Here is an overview of the four building blocks of senior fitness and how they can help your body.
Cardio endurance exercise
• What is it? Uses large muscle groups in rhythmic motions over a period of time. This type of exercise increases your body’s ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues and to remove waste over sustained periods of time. Cardio workouts get your heart pumping, and you may even feel a little short of breath.
• Why it’s good for seniors: Helps lessen fatigue and shortness of breath. Promotes independence by improving endurance for daily activities such as walking, house cleaning and errands. Cardio includes walking, stair climbing, swimming, hiking, cycling, rowing, tennis and dancing.
• What is it? Builds up muscle with repetitive motion using weight or external resistance from body weight, machines or elastic bands.
• Why it’s good for seniors: Helps elderly people prevent loss of bone mass, builds muscle and improves balance—both important in staying active and preventing risk of falling. Building up strength will help seniors stay independent and make day-to-day activities easier such as opening a jar, getting in and out of a car and lifting objects.
• What is it? Challenges the joints’ ability to move freely through a full range of motion. Can be done through static stretches (stationary) and ballistic stretches (moving or bouncing) to keep muscles and joints supple so they are less prone to injury.
• Why it’s good for seniors: Helps the body stay limber and increases range of movement for ordinary physical activities such as looking behind you while driving, tying shoes, shampooing your hair and playing with grandchildren.
• What is it? Maintains stability under a variety of conditions including static (stationary) and dynamic (moving) balance.
• Why it’s good for seniors: Improves balance, posture and quality of walking. Also reduces risk of falling and fear of falls. Try yoga, Tai Chi and posture exercises to gain confidence with balance.
Cindy Black is director of Body Edge Fitness Solutions in Ocean Isle Beach.