You’re never too old to exercise! It’s a necessary part of maintaining good health at any age. And while the natural process of growing older can bring a decrease in energy and strength as well as a host of conditions and diseases that can make exercising more difficult, there are many ways that caregivers can help seniors of every age keep fit.
Physiologically, as we age we generally experience changes in our overall fitness level. Some of the changes are inevitable while others are preventable. Exercise minimizes age-related losses in bone density and muscle mass while it helps to keep the heart and lungs strong. It can also help to improve balance and prevent falls, boost immunity, help promote better sleep, fight depression, decrease stress, and increase self-esteem. Clearly, the benefits of regular exercise for seniors are multifold.
One of the healthiest decisions you can help your senior make is committing to a routine of regular physical activity. But as always, before you get him or her moving, here are some safety considerations for you as a caregiver to keep in mind. First, get medical clearance from the doctor of your senior loved one, especially if he or she is dealing with any pre-existing conditions. Don’t forget to ask if there are particular activities to avoid. Also consider how ongoing health problems your senior has may affect workouts. Adjusting the timing of medication and meal plans with an exercise schedule for a senior with diabetes is one example. Start slowly if he or she has not been active in a while and build up to a more robust exercise program little-by-little. Try spacing workouts in ten-minute increments twice a day. Above all, if something feels wrong, hurts or makes your senior feel lousy, stop. And if your loved one feels dizzy, becomes short of breath, develops chest pain, breaks out in a cold sweat, or experiences pain, call the doctor or 911 if symptoms appear to warrant it. You should also stop him or her if a joint is red, swollen, or tender to the touch.
While any kind of exercise offers tremendous benefits, different types of exercise focus on certain aspects of your senior’s health.
Here’s an overview of the four building blocks of senior fitness and how they help to keep aging bodies healthy.
- Cardio-endurance exercise. Activities like walking, stair climbing, swimming, hiking, cycling, rowing, tennis and dancing increase the body’s ability to deliver oxygen and nutrients to tissues and remove waste over a sustained period of time. These exercises use large muscle groups and also get the heart pumping, help lessen fatigue and shortness of breath, and promote independence by improving endurance for daily activities like walking, housecleaning, and running errands.
- Strength training. Exercises that involve using weights or other external resistance such as body weight, machine or elastic bands. These exercises help elderly people prevent loss of bone mass, build muscle and improve balance – important in preventing falls and staying active and independent. They help make it easier for seniors to do simple day-to-day activities like opening a jar, getting in and out of a car, and lifting objects.
- Flexibility. Stationary stretches, ballistic or moving and bouncing stretches challenge the ability of joints to move freely through a full range of motion and keep muscles and joints supple so that they are less prone to injury. Staying limber helps with ordinary activities like looking behind while driving, tying shoes, shampooing hair, and playing with the grandchildren.
- Balance. Exercises like yoga, Tai Chi and simple posture stances help seniors to increase and maintain the ability to keep solid footing and stability while standing stationary or moving. Improved balance helps with the quality of walking and also reduces the risk of falling and fear of falls.
But what if your senior is wheelchair-bound, uses a walker or for some other reason is not fully mobile? For seniors with injuries or disabilities it’s even more important to experience the mood-boosting effects of exercise to release the endorphins that energize mood, relieve stress, boost self-esteem, and give an overall sense of well-being. Seniors with a disability, severe weight problem, chronic breathing condition, diabetes, arthritis or other ongoing illness may think it impossible to exercise effectively. However, while mobility issues introduce another level of challenges to senior fitness, the truth is, by adopting a creative approach there are ways to overcome physical limitations and find enjoyable ways to exercise. Talk to your senior’s doctor, physical therapist, or other health care provider about activities suitable for the medical condition or mobility issue he or she has. Perhaps the doctor can even recommend services designed to aid people with limited mobility become more active.
No matter what your senior’s age or physical condition it’s clear that fitness is essential to wellness and will help him or her enjoy the quality of life we all want to have.
- ‘Should your fitness regimen change as you get older?’ by Shanna Freeman, DiscoveryHealth, http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/aging/senior-health-lifestyle.
- ‘The Real Fountain of Youth: Exercise. Getting physical results in a longer, healthier life’, by Katherine Greider, AARP Bulletin, January, 1, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/health/fitness/info-01-2011
- ‘Senior Exercise and Fitness Tips. How to Gain Energy and Feel Stronger.’, HELPGUIDE.org, http://www.helpguide.org/life/senior_fitness_sports.
- ‘Chair Exercises & Limited Mobility Fitness. Tips for People with Injuries and Disabilities.’, HELPGUIDE.org, http://www.helpguide.org/life/workouts_exercise_overweight_disabled.