Living a healthy lifestyle can be difficult, especially as we grow older. Senior citizens in the United States are at an increased risk for falls and many other health-related issues. With that being said, there is good news: with some exercise, you can improve your physical health and reduce your risk of chronic illness, injury or death from falls! Senior fitness is an important topic that we are happy to help with.
"...We know that sedentary behavior contributes to a host of chronic diseases, and regular physical activity is an important component of an overall healthy lifestyle. There is strong evidence that physically active people have better health-related physical fitness and are at lower risk of developing many disabling medical conditions than inactive people." -the Honorable Michael O. Leavitt in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
What are the benefits of physical exercise for seniors?
Staying active has many benefits including a reduced risk for at least 20 chronic diseases defined as a disease slow in its progress (think decades) and long in its continuance, as opposed to acute disease, which is characterized by a swift onset and short course or conditions and provides effective treatment for many other conditions.
Exercise helps increase your metabolism and build muscle mass. Exercise can help you to maintain or lose weight. Strength training can alleviate symptoms of chronic conditions such as arthritis. People who exercise tend to have improved immune and digestive functioning, better blood pressure and bone density, and a lower cancer risk. Exercise improves your strength, flexibility, posture, balance and coordination which assists with reducing the risk of falling.
The following are some of the many benefits seniors can enjoy from an increased level of physical activity.
Reducing the risk for chronic diseases and conditions:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Heart disease
- Osteoporosis prevention and management
Improving quality of life and well being:
- Increasing brain function and mental sharpness
- Reducing depression or stress
- Improving memory
- Providing the opportunity for better social interactions with others
- Reducing healthcare costs
Almost anyone, at any age, can do some type of physical activity
Don’t let your age or physical limitations stop you. Senior-friendly exercises can be done at home, in the community, and with friends. The most important thing is for seniors to keep moving; just find a way that works best for you! Changing up routine activities such as walking around the block every day helps add variety and makes it something you can look forward to.
Try endurance, flexibility, strength, and balance exercises and activities to stay independent for longer. Here are a variety of gentle but effective physical activities that most older adults of any fitness level can incorporate into their regular routine:
- Gardening with a lightweight garden tool such as a hoe or shovel instead of heavier tools
- Walking down the hall and back two times every hour during day hours – try it for an at-home challenge! If you need a cane or a walker, or another assisting device, take care to give yourself plenty of time and don't push it. Safety first!
- Taking walking breaks from sitting to stand up, stretch out muscles, and take in new scenery. Going around a block or two just a couple times a day can be very beneficial. Need to change it up from the regular neighborhood? Perhaps you can drive or take a ride over a park or mall.
- Light yoga. Bending yourself into a pretzel is not likely to be an accessible option for many seniors. But fear not, there are senior-friendly forms of yoga that are still extremely effective for calming your mind and moving your body, and working on your balance to help prevent falls that helps you get and stay healthy.
- Do you have trouble walking? Try some chair yoga exercises for seniors to get you moving You can still build strength even from a seated position.
- Swimming is a great way not only to cool off on a hot day, but it can also make your heart stronger, and improve your cardiovascular health and endurance. Swimming is gentle on the joints and can increase flexibility, improve muscles, both in strength and tone and boost your mental health. If you really feel up for a challenge, try water aerobics!
Cardio workouts for seniors are particularly important to do regularly to take care of your heart. Incorporating lightweight dumbbells (substitute with bottles of water, cans of soup, or a resistance band if you don't have any dumbbells) can help you gain and maintain muscle strength. You can also skip weights altogether and just follow along without resistance.
Do what feels good to you and remember, if it's been a while since you've done some cardio workouts, start slowly. You'll get more energy and endurance after you stay active consistently over time. As you increase your activity level you'll gain confidence and will be able to move up into more difficult fitness routines.
Exercises to prevent falls
Many older adults fear falling and rightfully so. Did you know that every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
But falling is not actually an inherent part of aging. You can prevent falls through home modifications to ensure your environment is safe, checking your sight and hearing (your inner ear guides your balance, so to speak) and there are particular exercises you can do from home that will help you perfect your balance & coordination, and strengthen your muscles and bones so that in case you do fall you may get away unscathed and whole. Read all about what increases the risk of falls and how you can prevent them in this great guide by Sixty+Me.
Try these exercises to prevent falls:
- Balance Exercises
- Toe stands
- Leg curls
- Leg extensions
Check out some more tips with Dr. Jo.
Regular exercise means more energy
Exercising helps you feel more energetic and releases endorphins. Endorphins are important neurotransmitters linked to pain mitigation. They are also linked to a sense of well-being and stress reduction.
As your physical activity level increases, so does the amount of blood flowing through your veins and arteries. This increased flow can help to flush out harmful toxins from the body, such as lactic acid which builds up during exercise. The more you move, climb stairs or walk around in general on a daily basis, the better your circulation will be, your ability to maintain independence will increase, you'll be able to manage pain better, and help your body stay limber.
Support activity levels with a balanced diet
Many older adults don't get sufficient high-quality protein in their diets. Evidence suggests they need more than young people to maintain energy levels. This would support recovery from illness and injury, and support overall health. Older adults without kidney disease or diabetes should aim for about 0.5grams of protein per pound of body weight. This is less than that of many older people without diabetes or kidney disease. Learn more about nutrition for older adults and what you can do to eat well.
If making regular nutritious meals is too much for you to handle, look into local resources such as Meals on Wheels that may be able to deliver fresh, nutritious food to your door every day with a smile. You may be eligible to pay on a sliding scale based on your income. You may also consider finding a nutrition professional who can assist you.
Exercise and physical activity is good for just about everyone. Try to work up to exercising for a minimum of 150 minutes per week and perform muscle strengthening exercises two or more times a week. Start out slowly to determine what is right for you and be sure to discuss your health concerns by consulting with your doctor. You may want to do it yourself or join other people in an exercise group.
An active lifestyle has so many benefits for people of an advanced age, and there's very little downside. Get started with a regular exercise program today! Your future self will thank you.