There is no better time to exercise than when you’re older.
Although many older people know the importance of physical fitness, it is estimated that about 85 percent fail to exercise on a regular basis. They don’t do it for the same reason younger people don’t exercise – it’s too hard, it’s too boring, or it takes too long to see the results of their effort.
This is a big mistake for a number of reasons.
For starters, regular physical activity, in addition to making you look and feel good, lowers risk for a variety of conditions that increase when we age. This includes heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure and obesity. According to one aging expert, “Biologically you can reverse the aging process by 15 to 25 years.” In addition, exercise can maintain your mobility, keep your bones and muscles strong, promote good balance, and combat frailty. Enhancing your fitness will also increase your metabolic rate and burn calories, decrease body fat, improve immune function and promote bone density.
If that’s not enough reason to jump on a treadmill or start lifting weights, recent research shows that regular exercise can reverse age-related brain decline. There is substantial evidence that aerobic exercise and physical activity can affect such executive-control brain functions as task coordination, planning, goal maintenance, working memory and the ability to switch tasks. Several studies have shown that regular moderate exercise that makes a person breathless increases the speed and sharpness of thought, the actual volume of brain tissue, and the way in which the brain functions. Adults with higher levels of physical fitness had less evidence of deterioration in gray matter (involved in thinking) than did less fit peers.
Even frail seniors can and should exercise – once they get the green light from the medical professional. A body is just like a car – it needs to be used to keep working properly.
There are several things to consider, of course. Start slowly and build. If something hurts, take a break. Make sure you wear loose fitting clothes, keep yourself hydrated and wear comfortable sneakers. If you experience chest pain or pressure, nausea, persistent sharp pain, excessive shortness of breath, or problems with your balance, check immediately with your doctor.
To stay healthy, active and independent include activities that enhance strength, endurance, balance and flexibility. Most of all, seek out activities you enjoy so you won’t view exercising as a chore. You are more likely to make a commitment to good fitness if you like what you’re doing and, if at all possible, you’re doing it with people you enjoy being with. This can include using cardiovascular machines (e.g. treadmills, ellipticals, recumbent and upright stationary bikes, step machines), yoga and stretching classes, pilates, gardening, swimming, bicycling, walking, golf, bowling, tennis, dancing and/or martial arts like Tai Chi.
Aerobic exercise or cardiovascular conditioning is extremely beneficial for seniors. This type of exercise allows the heart and lungs to work out at an elevated rate, supplies oxygen to the muscles, and improves the overall efficiency of the cardiovascular system. For seniors who are frail or have balance problems, swimming and water aerobics may be safer and less jarring to the body.
Exercise physiologists like Sal Fichera, author of the book Stop Aging – Start Training, place an emphasis on weight or resistance training needs. Such a program, of course, needs to be tailored to meet the medical concerns, overall physical condition and functional capacity of each individual. Resistance can take the form of free weights, machines tubing, or Therabands (or more creative items like soup cans). Form is important in order to prevent injuries, so it is important to start out with someone who can teach you the proper mechanics. Begin with lighter and manageable weights and fewer repetitions, and increase over time. Focus on exercising all six major muscle groups.
Studies have shown that even older and frailer people can greatly enhance the quality of their life through exercise. One study by a state Department of Health and Senior Services found that those seniors who participated in an exercise program reported an overall improvement in their health and fewer sick days.
Many local YMCAs offer senior-focused fitness programs, which include swimming, cardio-vascular and weight lifting. By exercising and maintaining a proper diet, your doctor maybe able to eliminate some of your medications and you should notice increased energy and feel better mentally.