Exercise and Aging: Benefits of an exercise regimen.
We all hope our elderly loved ones will be able to avoid chronic illness, injury, and even depression in their later years. But while there’s no magic bullet to guarantee seniors will remain safe and healthy as they age, medical experts agree that moderate exercise is good for everyone – young and old alike.
Why Seniors Need Exercise
Anyone who engages in regular, moderate exercise can expect to experience lower blood sugar levels, reduced cholesterol, and an overall improved sense of well-being.
But for seniors, the benefits go even further, and can include:
- Improved immune function: The immune system declines as we age. But older adults are better positioned to fight off infection and disease when they’re physically fit, and may even face an easier recovery if they do get sick.
- Stronger heart and lungs: By strengthening the heart and lungs, exercise helps lower blood pressure, increases stamina, and reduces the risk of heart disease.
- Stronger bones: Research shows that strength training exercises can dramatically reduce age-related bone loss, reducing the risk of osteoporosis, fractures, and falls.
- Improved gastrointestinal function: Regular exercise improves metabolism, promotes digestive health, and promotes the efficient elimination of waste.
- Longer life: Studies suggested older adults who exercise regularly have lower rates of mortality and age-related morbidity.
The Best Workouts for Seniors
To reap the above benefits, older adults should engage in a program of regular, moderate exercise that focuses on these three key components:
Aerobics and endurance exercises: It’s recommended that seniors get in 30 minutes of cardio exercise – any activity that elevates the heart rate and causes rapid breathing – each day. Walking, stationary cycling, and swimming are all great options for older adults. If stamina or mobility issues make it difficult to continue an activity for a full 30 minutes, it’s ok to split cardio workouts into three 10-minute blocks.
Strength and resistance training: Two to three sessions of strength and resistance training exercises can help older adults stave off bone loss, improve balance, and avoid falls and broken bones. Resistance bands, calisthenics, and bodyweight exercises are good in-home options for those who can’t make it to a gym or don’t have access to specialized equipment. Just be sure to target all major muscle groups and aim for 1-to-2 moderately intense sets of 10-to-15 repetitions each.
Stretching and flexibility exercises: Stretching before and after a workout allows the muscles to warm up and cool down properly, reducing the risk of injury. Some workouts – like yoga and Pilates – offer the benefits of both strength and flexibility training by isolating and developing different muscle groups. Exercises programs that focus on the core – the muscle groups that connect the back and abdomen – help improve posture, reduce widespread muscle pain, and enhance overall movement.
Making Exercise Safe for Seniors
Many people wrongly believe that exercise isn’t an option for their elderly loved ones. But the truth is, the benefits of a moderate exercise program – adapted to fit individual needs and abilities – far outweigh the risks for just about anyone, even aging seniors.
In fact, research suggests regular physical activity can help many older adults better manage the symptoms of certain chronic conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and high blood pressure. In some cases, exercise may even improve their condition.
But before your elderly loved one embarks on an exercise program, be sure to talk with their doctor to determine what activities might be appropriate and what precautions they should take. Then start slowly to prevent injury and soreness, perhaps with familiar activities they already enjoy, like gardening or working in the yard, walking the dog, or light resistance exercises while watching TV.
It’s also important to make sure your loved one has the proper shoes, clothing, and equipment for the activity they’ve chosen. Clothes should be loose-fitting and comfortable, and shoes should have good arch support, as well as an elevated and cushioned heel to absorb shock.
Before every workout session, encourage your loved one to warm up for five minutes by walking slowly or doing a few gentle stretches. They should also cool down for at least five minutes – longer in warmer weather – once they’re finished exercising.
And remember, exercise will only benefit those who are feeling well. Your loved one should skip workouts when they have a cold, the flu, or other illness. If they remain inactive for two weeks or more, make sure they restart slowly once they’re able to begin exercising again.
Finally, encourage your loved one to exercise with a buddy, or only do so when you or another caregiver is present to supervise their activity. This is especially important for seniors who are living with any type of physical or cognitive impairments.