Exercise for Seniors
- An overview

Exercise for seniors - Benefits, barriers and recommendations

There is a common misconception that as you get older, you automatically become less active. Chronic pain, health issues and the concern of being injured are some of the reasons cited by seniors for living a sedentary lifestyle as they grow older. While it’s a fact that aging comes with decreased muscle mass that often leads to weakened bones and compromised balance, leading an inactive lifestyle only escalates these issues. 

"Regular exercise can help you maintain your independence, boost your energy and manage symptoms of pain or illness"

As you age, an active lifestyle becomes more important than ever before.  Senior fitness and exercise tips can even help you reverse the symptoms of aging. Exercise is not only helpful for your body but also your mood, mind, and memory. 

Whether you’re managing an illness or generally healthy, there’re many ways you can get active, boost your fitness and improve your confidence. If you’ve never exercised before, chances are you’re not sure where to begin. Or maybe you have an ongoing disability or health problem that is keeping you from exercising. 

The fact is you can’t afford to stop moving, and if you need some motivation, let’s start by looking at some of the specific benefits of exercising at a senior age.

Benefits of exercise for seniors

elderly couple golfing

Increased Mobility & Independence

As we age, it can sometimes become difficult to move, climb stairs or walk a long distance. While the younger folks take this tasks for granted, the diminishing ability to complete these activities can reduce independence and increase reliance on other people for daily chores. 

Decreased mobility/movement is also a risk factor for disability, hospitalization, and mortality. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  observed the effects of physical activity on mobility disability. The scientists defined major mobility disability as being unable to walk for 400 meters. 

"The study concluded that a moderate workout program reduced mobility disability in seniors significantly"

Increased Cognitive Function

Physical health generally declines as we age. Though exercise and physical activity are typically associated with physical health, they can actually improve mental health. One review study published in the Journal of Aging Research revealed that exercise is a potential non-pharmaceutical intervention for preventing neurodegenerative diseases and age-related cognitive decline.

Longevity

According to Harvard Medical School, performing regular aerobic exercise reduces your resting heart rate, allowing you to live longer. The Harvard study reveals that a higher resting heart rate is an indication of poor heart health. People with a higher resting heart rate are at a high risking of developing heart disease. 

Aerobic activity improves the cardiovascular system’s ability to circulate more oxygen throughout your body –this is important to your organ’s health. 

"With healthy and well-functioning organs, you can be assured your life expectancy will be extended"

Improved Memory

Another research study investigated the effects of resistance training and aerobic workouts on memory. They used three groups of participants; resistance training, aerobic exercise, and control. 

The research reveals three mains findings;

  1. The group that performed aerobic exercise was the best in the memory test.
  2. Both the aerobic and the resistance training groups performed better in the spatial memory test compared to the control group.
  3. There was a significant correlation between the overall physical capacity and spatial memory. The research concluded that exercise impacted cognitive functioning positively and may be used as a tool to combat memory loss in seniors.

Lower Risk of Chronic Disease

Regular exercise combats osteoporosis by putting measured stress on your bones which increases its bone density. Exercising more regularly also reduces your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, stroke and Type 2 diabetes. Exercise will help you lose weight, manage your weight and prevent weight gain. 

Energy and Strength

women doing yoga

Our energy levels, muscle mass, and metabolism slowly decrease as we age. Exercise for seniors can prevent that from happening too fast. Performing 30-45 minutes of aerobic exercise can go a long way in boosting your energy levels.
Strength training is one of the best ways to gain muscle mass and increase your metabolism. 

Yoga and Tai Chi are also great non-impact exercises that offer numerous benefits to aging adults. A publication by Harvard Medical School revealed that doing tai chi eases or prevents many of the ailments of aging. Research has shown that it lowers the risk of falling and also improves lower body/upper body strength and flexibility. 

Prevent and Delay disease

The NIH cites research studies showing individuals who have heart disease, diabetes and arthritis can benefit from a regular workout. The cited studies also mention that workout is beneficial for seniors with balance problems, high blood pressure and difficulty walking. Exercise can also help seniors control the pain and swelling associated with arthritis.

What happens if you don’t exercise?

"Only about 30% of adults aged above 65 are physically active! This lack of exercise and a physical lifestyle can profoundly affect your health in a negative way"

Here is how: 

Circulatory System Problems

The heart is a muscle, just like any other body muscle, and without regular exercise, it can weaken. So one day when you suddenly need to move real quick, your heart simply can’t handle going from zero to 60 in a flash, and this can sometimes end tragically. 

Additionally, your lungs grow inefficient when it comes to absorbing oxygen, which will often leave you out of breath and wheezing after walking a few stairs. Finally, your blood pressure will rise and your blood vessels will stiffen as a result. Consequently, this will encourage the buildup of plaque, which creates an ideal condition for strokes and other disasters along the way.

Weight Gain

person standing on a scale

Most of the weight gained by aging adults is as a result of an inactive lifestyle. Too many hours on the couch, coupled with a poor eating habit will definitely earn you those extra pounds. General discomfort, extra health care costs, life-altering health problems, and mobility hassles are some of the consequences of weight gain. 

Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common illnesses ailing seniors above the age of 50. It’s commonly caused by too many sugary drinks, junk food, and other processed foods, and of course, lack of exercise. 
Too much sugary foods cause frequent sugar spikes in the blood, and insulin has to be released to force-feed some of these sugars into the muscles. When this happens too frequently, insulin gets dulled and in the end stops responding, causing diabetes. Exercise uses sugar in the blood as a source of energy and also helps in restoring insulin receptors’ sensitivity. 

Joint and Bone Fragility

This is probably the least obvious consequence of not exercising. In fact, some seniors are misguided by the misconception that exercising at old age can injure your knees and joints.

"The fact is, frequently exercised and stretched joints are more flexible, while the unused ones are less elastic, weaker and more prone to injuries and tears"

Seniors are susceptible to bone brittleness, partly due to calcium intake, but exercise plays a major role in maintaining the integrity of the bone mass. 

Lack of Endurance

If you’ve not been exercising for a while, you must have already noticed that your endurance is declining when performing certain activities. Lack of endurance can be manifested in many different ways. For instance, you may get easily winded walking to your mailbox, or feel tired just a few steps into a hiking trip. Declining endurance can negatively impact your life and keep you from doing the little things that you used to enjoy doing. 

Loss of Balance

Exercise for seniors - balancing rocks

Do you remember when you were a kid how you could easily stand on one foot or even ride on a skateboard? These activities required a lot of balance. Lack of regular exercise can lead to balance issues as a result of a lack of core strength, muscle weakness, and a sedentary lifestyle. 

"About 25% of adults aged over 65 fall yearly in the US. "

Falls are the leading cause of non-fatal and fatal accidents in aging adults. Balance plays a major role in helping you stay steady on your feet or easily catch yourself as you start to fall. 

Loss of Mobility

If you do not exercise regularly, chances are you won’t move as well over time. There’re numerous reasons for this, some of which we’ve already mentioned such as lack of flexibility, endurance, balance, and strength, as well as weight gain. These factors combine to reduce your mobility and the ability to move comfortably without extreme effort or pain. 

Barriers to Exercise and Physical Activity in seniors

Lack of exercise for seniors can be quite disastrous to their health and well-being. There’re legitimate barriers to physical activity and why some older adults are no longer motivated to exercise. If’s you haven’t been exercising for a while or if you have a disability or an illness to consider, it’s important that you consult your doctor before starting an exercise program. 

5 common barriers to overcome for senior exercise

elderly man smiling at the camera

Fear of injury:

  •  If your years are wheezing past 65, the fear of injury becomes a very legitimate concern. However, lack of exercise, as earlier mentioned, can cause balance issues and general functional decline. With the right equipment, assistive devices and supervision, strength and balance training can greatly assist seniors to exercise and reduce the risk of falls and injury. 

Discomfort and pain:

  • About 30% of seniors are not exercising due to pain and discomfort. Heart conditions, back pain, lung disorder, and sore knees can be barriers to an active lifestyle and exercise. Obesity and overweight can majorly influence physical activity in aging adults as well. We recommend that you speak with your doctor about the symptoms and discomfort. Pain and discomfort can be managed by medication and physical therapy. 

Fixed income:

  • Health club memberships, personal trainers, and gym can be expensive for the elderly living on a fixed income. Lack of extra funds can bar seniors from exercising. However, there’re simple, inexpensive options such as walking, jogging and stretching. 

"Even simple household chores such as vacuuming, scrubbing the floors or mowing the lawn can get you up and move"

Isolation:

  • Most individuals, not only seniors, can exercise better if they have an exercise partner. If you’ve lost your loved one, or they have a physical disability, you might lose motivation to exercise. Sometimes you might feel unsafe or vulnerable walking alone. The best way to overcome this is to locate a local senior citizen community that offers fitness training and group activities. Family and friends can also keep you company on your workout sessions to keep you motivated. 

Cognitive decline:

  • Seniors who are experiencing a cognitive decline or memory loss tend to shy away from exercise and physical activities. But as earlier mentioned, exercise is essential for improving blood flow to the brain. The blood flow stimulates brain cell growth. Make exercise part of your daily routine. Start with simple things like walking, climbing stairs and stretching. 

Some gentle exercises and ideas to get you started

Senior women on a tennis court

As you’ve seen earlier, lack of exercise can have numerous negative effects on your health. We also understand that there might be legitimate barriers holding you back from living an active lifestyle. The good news is you don’t need to be aggressive or visit the gym regular regularly to get some of the health benefits of exercise mentioned above. In this section, we recommend the best exercise for beginners who want to start slow. 

Take a look. 

Walking:

"Walking is great for your joints, your mental health, and cardiovascular system. And the best part is you can do it – quite literally – anywhere."

  • Whether you choose to stroll up and down your neighborhood street or hit the treadmill, any form of walking is a great way to stay healthy.

Yoga:

  • Yoga is a great option if you want to move your body and stretch it a little bit without putting too much stress on your joints. There’re plenty of free yoga lessons that you can do at home if the idea of stretching in front of other people makes you uncomfortable. 

Strength Training:

  • Having sufficient muscle strength can make the most basic chores seem a little easier in your body. You only need a light set of weights and you can launch your own strength training program at home. 

Tai Chi:

  • Tai Chi is a fun way of improving your balance, which is very vital to your body as you age. It’s a low-impact exercise that incorporates deep breathing and slow movement to improve balance and flexibility. In fact, many researchers find this a perfect workout for seniors. 

Chair Exercises:

  • Finally, an exercise you can perform in your chair without even standing up. This is an effective and safe option for seniors who want to strengthen and tone their muscles and boost their mobility. 

If you have any physical limitation or health concerns, be sure to consult your doctor before starting any exercise regime. Your doctor can help you chose a safe and effective approach and even recommend some additional resources and gentle exercises.

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