May 27th is National Senior Health and Fitness Day, the annual celebration and promotion of the importance of staying active as you age. The importance of exercise has been well-documented, but most of the focus is on young or middle-aged people. Advertising for fitness gear and clothing features sculpted bodies that look like they have been chiseled out of marble. While these types of models may be aspirational for some, for older people movement is just as, if not more, important. Exercising as we age can increase mobility, ward off serious illness, and improve mood and overall outlook.
Recent studies have found that older adults spend an average of 8.5 of their waking hours and sitting down. This one action has numerous deleterious effects at any age, including the following:
- Mortality (from any cause)
- Cardiovascular disease mortality
- Cardiovascular disease incidence
- Cancer mortality
- Cancer incidence
- Type 2 diabetes incidence
For people who exercise and limit their sitting time to a minimum, these effects can be greatly decreased. For example, people who simply stood up and walked around for two minutes out of every hour had a 33% lowered risk of mortality from any cause. People with chronic kidney disease saw their risk of mortality lowered by 41%.
While even just a little activity is good, for the most benefit, it is important to work towards the goal of meeting the minimum guidelines for weekly exercise: 150 minutes. This should be spread out over the week to maximize benefits.
It can be difficult to break the habit of sitting in older adults, but a new study is taking the first steps towards research trials on the benefits of adding more movement in daily life. The Taking Active Breaks From Sitting (TABS) pilot study used motivational coaching to help seniors sit an average of 27 minutes less each day. Seniors participating in the study reported more energy, improved mood, and less aching and general creakiness in their joints.
Seniors who have been used to sitting for most of their day may be reluctant to begin a new exercise program. Some older people may be recovering from an age-related illness or injury. Starting an exercise program can be daunting, but there are ways to slowly ease back into activity.
1. Talk to your doctor
When starting a new exercise program, it’s important to talk to your healthcare professional and get tips or resources from him or her. Chances are good they can direct you to a program or resource that will help you get started.
2. Start with the basics
Stand up. Instead of putting everything you need within arm’s reach of the chair you are sitting in, take only what you need for a short period of time, then stand up and get everything else at regular intervals. If standing up is difficult, work on balance exercises to improve strength and confidence. This may seem like a very basic and not particularly useful type of exercise, but recent research shows that your ability to stand up and sit down is a strong predictor of life expectancy.
3. Start slowly
Especially if you have been inactive for a long period of time, it is important to start slowly and add resistance and time gradually. Many seniors worry about injury when they begin to exercise. The best way to avoid injury is to build strength and endurance methodically and gradually. Even former marathon runners need to ease back into activity.
4. Choose activities based on previous physical activities
Many senior centers and care facilities focus on chair exercises. While these have tremendous value for seniors with limited mobility who need to move or recover from an injury, for some, the activity can be repetitive. For others, it may not be enough exercise or they may get bored of it.
When planning physical activity, look for engaging physical exercise that is similar to what you may have done when you were younger. Former ballerina? Look for senior dance classes. Champion swimmer? Aquatic aerobics or just swimming is great exercise. Love to hike and be out in nature? Look for parks that feature paved trails and go with a friend. You will be more likely to stick with exercise that is fun and engaging. If you are unable to do the things you love due to injury or lack of mobility, use them as a goal to work towards.
5. Make an exercise schedule and stick to it
Maybe you set a timer that tells you to stand up and move around for two minutes every hour, then program a reminder on your phone (or have someone call you!) to remind you to exercise three to five times a week. Maybe you consult a calendar or maybe you walk your dog to the corner and back every morning. However you choose to do it, one of the best ways to support a new exercise regimen is to make it an integral part of your routine, like waking up and brushing your teeth. The more you stick with it, the sooner you will see improvements in mood, strength, and stamina.
6. Take care of yourself
While you may feel muscle soreness as you work muscles that have been inactive for a long period of time, exercise should not hurt or make you feel dizzy or sick. If you feel sharp, stabbing pain as you exercise or if you feel light-headed and unable to catch your breath, back off and call your doctor. It may be that you are going too fast, too soon, or you may need some help learning how to exercise safely.
For more tips and information on how to exercise safely, along with some common myths regarding exercise for seniors and the benefits of senior exercise, visit this help guide.
Image by Abdulsalam Haykal via Flickr