Regular exercise is incredibly important for staying healthy as we age. It reduces weight gain that would put additional strain on weakening bones. It helps to maintain your sense of balance, reducing the risk of falls and broken bones. And it also keeps your mind active; one study has even shown that higher levels of physical activity correlate to a lower risk for Alzheimer's and dementia.
Why do so many older adults and seniors remain sedentary? One challenge is that the older you get, the more difficult it is to change your habits. And if you have never exercised in the past, you feel that it's pointless to start in your 60s or beyond.
Older adults also frequently face a variety of health problems, some minor, some severe, that can feel like road blocks on the way to a healthier life. Gabriel Enescu, Director of Rehabilitation at Excel Physical Therapy in Lodi, CA points out that physical therapists "are often presented with a variety of issues and have to create a wide range of adaptations that will motivate seniors to exercise”.
Older adults should be wary of high impact exercises. Gabriel points out that these types of exercises lead to higher rates of injury in older populations with less range of motion. They should talk to their fitness instructors about health limitations or prior injuries. Anyone that hasn't been exercising regularly should consult with his or her doctor first to discuss particular activities or potential problems to avoid. He also recommends asking the doctor about how their medications might influence fitness; Gabriel notes that "different medicine can affect training, as well as training responses."
That said, there are many ways to exercise for older adults. For those that may not have been active in recent years, one of the easiest ways to ease back into activity is walking outside or on the treadmill. You can control your pace and distance, gradually increasing both to continually challenge your body. It's free, although you should consider investing in a good pair of walking (or tennis) shoes. And, depending on your environment, it's easy to vary your trail so that you don't get bored by the routine. Numerous recent studies have shown that walking 10,000 steps per day leads to better health, leading to such benefits as lower blood pressure, weight loss and better heart rates. Regular walking has also been shown to have numerous physical and psychological benefits.
While walking will help with cardiac health and weight management, older adults should also consider adding strength training to their regimen in order to maintain balance. Gabriel suggests the following types of exercises that can improve strength and flexibility:
- Stretch. Stretch before and after exercise. Lie on the floor while stretching your legs and back to avoid injury.
- Balance. Start by trying to stand on one leg with your hands above the backs of two chairs so in case you lose your balance you will have something to hold on. Monitor the time you can stay in one leg. Try to build on that time by holding it a little bit longer each day.
- Core exercises. Such exercises as crunches, bird-dogs and front planks all work the core and strengthen the lower back. Tip: If you have problems in the bird-dog lifting both your arm and the opposing leg (i.e., the right arm and left leg) at the same time, you can initially lift the just the arm or leg while building strength.
- Upper body. To build your arms with minimal resistance, you can do push-ups against a wall or your stairs. Even lifting small hand weights in increments of 1 or 2 pounds will help build arm muscles and make lifting things easier.
Pilates is also a great way to strengthen muscles through low-impact exercises. Gabriel reminds us that "many Pilates exercises can be modified to address the specific needs of a wide range of adults, from active people to those with restricted mobility who are better suited to working while seated." Because most Pilates exercises target the core, they strengthen the muscles necessary for balance and stability, key areas to work on as we age.
You can also start at home, as many fitness programs are available on DVD. If you work out at home, rather than in a class, consider asking a friend to work out with you. Gabriel underscores the importance of social connections made in group classes for older adults. He loves watching his older students "encourage each other, which makes for a very fun and motivating environment." Working out with a friend can also help a person set goals, whether they are as large as weight loss or as simple as being able to lean over to tie shoes without difficulty. It's even been shown that people who repeatedly work out with the same crowd are more likely to stick to their exercise regimen.
Put on a good pair of shoes, call a friend, and get started. As Gabriel notes, "If we move more, we improve our health and feel better-- vital reasons why exercise is so important for people of any age."