Monday, July 12, 2010

Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults: Overview

George Burns (who lived to be 100) used to say, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!" It's true that some individuals are blessed with good genes, and no matter how many unhealthy lifestyle habits they have, they're going to live into old age. But for the rest of us who might be concerned with quality of life as we age, exercise is one of the keys. Is it ever too late to start? Research proves it's not. In this post, we'll discuss the benefits of exercising into old age.

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The aging population

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by the year 2030, the number of individuals in the United States 65 years and over will reach 70 million, and people 85 years and older will be the fastest growing segment of the population. Some of you may already be there, while others may be approaching. But whatever your age, exercise can help.

Why People Don’t Exercise?

People have all kinds of excuses for not exercising. For people over 60 they usually include ‘I’m tired,’ ‘I’m too old,’ ‘It’s too late for me to start that kind of thing.’ Some of them may even blame a specific medical condition for their lack of exercise. This is despite the fact that most health conditions would actually improve with regular exercise.

Most people do not like exercise. This may have something to do with the way we are hard-wired. Way back in history we had to work hard to find enough food to eat. It may be that our bodies are wired to rest whenever possible to conserve the calories from the food we did find. It isn’t hard to find food these days. You don’t even have to leave your house to get a hot meal delivered right to your door.

In this age of home delivery and fast food, we have to work hard against our natural inclinations. Granted, it is hard to exercise if you are in pain from a recent knee surgery or the like. This doesn’t change the fact that most doctors recommend you get moving right away—even if you have a medical condition.

Is it safe for me to exercise?

It is safe for most adults older than 65 years to exercise. Even patients who have chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis, can exercise safely. Many of these conditions are improved with exercise. If you are not sure if exercise is safe for you or if you are currently inactive, ask your doctor.

Why is exercise important?

A safe, effective exercise program can help reduce some of the aches and pains that are a part of getting older. It can also slow down the progression of conditions associated with aging. For example:
  • Keeping active helps you maintain your ability to walk, which is especially important to maintain your independence.
  • Exercise can improve and maintain balance and posture, reducing your risk of falling.
  • Exercise can improve your strength, endurance and flexibility. It promotes bone strength. Repeated mild stress on our bones helps them maintain their calcium content and structure.
  • Exercise also helps to maintain muscle mass and tone. After age 30 we start losing muscle mass. Exercise stimulates muscle growth and slows this process. Muscle also uses more calories than fat tissue. As we increase or maintain our muscle mass we create a better 'metabolic machine' for burning calories.
  • Exercise is also important for joint health. Repetitive motion promotes the body's natural process of lubricating joint surfaces. This may help lessen joint stiffness and achiness.
  • The stronger your muscles are, the more weight and stress they can handle. Stronger muscles protect your joints. As we age our joints begin to gradually weaken from typical wear and tear. Stronger muscles take weight and stress away from your joints.
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How do I get started?

It is important to wear loose, comfortable clothing and well-fitting, sturdy shoes. Your shoes should have a good arch support, and an elevated and cushioned heel to absorb shock. 

If you are not already active, you should begin slowly. Start with exercises that you are already comfortable doing. Starting slowly makes it less likely that you will injure yourself. Starting slowly also helps prevent soreness. The saying "no pain, no gain" is not true for older or elderly adults. You do not have to exercise at a high intensity to get most health benefits. 

For example, walking is an excellent activity to start with. As you become used to exercising, or if you are already active, you can slowly increase the intensity of your exercise program.

What type of exercise should I do?

There are several types of exercise that you should do. You will want to do some type of aerobic activity for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. Examples are walking, swimming and bicycling. You should also do resistance (also called strength training) 2 days per week. 

Warm up for 5 minutes before each exercise session. Walking slowly and then stretching are good warm-up activities. You should also cool down with more stretching for 5 minutes when you finish exercising. Cool down longer in warmer weather. 

Exercise is only good for you if you are feeling well. Wait to exercise until you feel better if you have a cold, the flu or another illness. If you miss exercise for more than 2 weeks, be sure to start slowly again.

When should I call my doctor?

If your muscles or joints are sore the day after exercising, you may have done too much. Next time, exercise at a lower intensity. If the pain or discomfort persists, you should talk to your doctor. You should also talk to your doctor if you have any of the following symptoms while exercising:
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Trouble breathing or excessive shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Difficulty with balance
  • Nausea

Sources and Additional Information:

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