“If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!” – George Burns
Many have searched for the fountain of youth and failed because they didn’t know one very important thing; it’s already within your grasp. Staying active throughout advancing years is like finding a fountain of youth because it pays off in so many ways. Regular exercise keeps joints supple, helps you sleep, and moves toxins out of your body. It helps manage and/or reduce the pain associated with conditions such as arthritis, solves the problem of social isolation, lifts depression, improves confidence, and helps you remain independent longer. Exercise is good for your mind, as well as your body. When you take part in a new activity such as armchair yoga, your mind and memory engage as they work to understand and remember the new routine. And exercise is “self-sustaining”; the more you exercise, the more energy you have to exercise. The secret is knowing where to begin.
If you’ve never been a fitness enthusiast, you might be wondering if it’s pointless, or even too late, to begin now. The answer to that question is no; it’s never too late to begin taking better care of your body. Possibly you’re feeling restricted by a chronic health condition or maybe you’re worried about falling. In this instance, the key is to take part in activities directed by a certified instructor who can monitor your involvement and make suggestions tailored to your situation, keeping you safe as you become healthier and stronger. Maybe you’re just not comfortable in a group setting. Not to worry, there are plenty of exercises you can do in the privacy of your own home. Just make sure you clear your choices with your primary health care professional before undertaking anything new.
Taking part in fitness activities as a senior isn’t about strenuous workouts or endless hours each week. It’s about adding more movement and activity to your daily routine, even in small ways.
How much time have you got, because listing all the benefits of exercise could take a while! Here are just a few examples of what regular physical activity helps to do:
- lower blood pressure
- maintain/improve muscle tone and strength
- increase flexibility and mobility
- keep blood sugar in check
- prevent falls by keeping your muscles strong
- prevent falls by improving your balance
- manage the pain of conditions like arthritis
- lift mood and depression
- alleviate social isolation and anxiety
- prevent loss of bone mass
- improve sleep quality and duration
- increase range of motion
- improve circulation, immune function, digestion
And the list goes on…
As we age, our metabolism naturally slows, making it difficult to maintain a healthy weight. It’s important to add more regular physical activity to burn calories and increase metabolism, even if that means walking just that little bit further every day. In the context of chronic illness such as cardiovascular conditions (heart disease, blood pressure), increasing your activity level is probably the best thing you can do for your body as long as your primary health care professional gives you the green light.
It’s also been shown that seniors who exercise have a lowered risk of several chronic conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and colon cancer. 1. When you undertake activities that improve your strength, posture, and coordination, you lessen the probability of accidental falls. And as you get stronger, your self-confidence grows, decreasing the anxiety about falling. If you’ve never considered a fitness routine as something you’d have included in your life, taking it up in your later years means exercise for your brain as well as your body. Exercise keeps your brain active and focused (what am I seeing, what am I doing, who am I meeting), which helps slow the progression of cognitive decline and issues with memory.
Oh Yes You Can!
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? There is a lot of misinformation and limiting beliefs surrounding seniors and exercise. For example, don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old to start exercising. Unless your primary health care professional says otherwise, you can start at any age. Telling yourself that you’re “resting” and saving your strength is just another way of allowing a sedentary lifestyle to take over. Long periods of inactivity can lead to loss of function, mobility, and open the door to illness. Exercising doesn’t increase your risk of falling if done correctly and in the right setting. It’s quite the opposite; a stronger body means lessening the chances that you’ll fall. Individuals confined to a wheelchair are not precluded from exercising. In fact, there have been many types of exercises modified in recent years for just that group of seniors. So, unless your doctor says otherwise, start investigating the best types of exercises for your individual situation today.
Known as sarcopenia, age-related decline in muscle mass begins in your forties, moving along rapidly as your age increases. Before the age of forty, we lose anywhere from 3-5% per decade. By the time you’re in your fifties, you’re losing anywhere from 1-2% per year.2 The number and size of muscle fibers also decrease. This loss of muscle fiber number is the principal cause of sarcopenia, although fiber atrophy is also involved. 3 Accordingly, it takes muscles longer to respond in our fifties than they did in our twenties.4 A sedentary lifestyle will accelerate the natural process; loss of muscle mass directly results in diminished muscle function. Sarcopenia has been linked to several chronic afflictions that are common among the aged, including osteoporosis, insulin resistance, and arthritis.5 Nearly 50% of older adults (> 60 yr) in the United States have been estimated to be sarcopenic, with approximately 20% classified as functionally disabled.6 Not only do we experience a loss of muscle but we begin to see a decline in muscle gain, leaving you with a net deficit. Increasing your physical activity can help balance out the deficit that inevitably comes with age. You may not be able to perform some tasks at the same speed you did in your younger years but, in the case of normal daily activities such as getting out of a chair, you shouldn’t see too much of a difference. And let’s face it; without strong muscles we quickly move into the realm of frailty, immobility, and increasing dependence on others.
What About Nerves, Joints and Bones?
As we age, our nerve cells begin to transmit messages more slowly and this can lead to a reduced speed or amount of motor activity, including a significant loss of reflexes, reaction time, fine coordination, and agility. We also see reduced muscular power, more so in the legs than the arms.7 Exercising, in an otherwise healthy individual, can help slow the rate at which this degeneration takes place because exercise keeps your muscles and nerves sharp and in tip top shape. Bones are in constant flux throughout our lifetime, changing, absorbing, secreting and, in general, remodeling themselves as is required by the body or as nutrients become available or scarce. The mineral content changes, bone mass loss occurs, osteoporosis may develop, and cartilage, which provides padding for the bones, begins to change and break down. Ligaments, which lend elasticity, lose their flex, reducing our overall flexibility and range of motion in our joints. The simple solution to abating this breakdown is to keep yourself sufficiently hydrated, make sure your nutritional intake is well-rounded, and exercise every day to help hold back the ravages of time.
Your Lymphatic System
Being Inactive is Risky
Some seniors, understandably so, are reluctant to embark on a new program of physical activity. They may worry that their body will not allow them to fully participate or that exercising will, in some unknown way, actually harm them. Some might worry that a large cost is involved, thinking a lot of equipment or a trainer is necessary. However, it’s important to educate yourself about the prospect of physical activity because inactivity is actually more risky that undertaking some new exercise. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, inactive people are nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who are more active. Lack of physical activity also can lead to more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations, and more use of medicines for a variety of illnesses. 8
We’ve talked about how your muscles, bones, and joints change as you age. But what hasn’t been touched on is the lymphatic system. This system is not one that generally comes to mind when you think about your inner workings, yet without this highly-focused system our heart would stop and our immune system would be extensively compromised. The lymphatic system actually consists of two semi-independent parts: (1) a meandering network of lymphatic vessels and (2) various lymphoid tissues and organs scattered throughout the body. The lymphatic vessels transport fluids that have escaped from the blood vascular system back to the blood [helping to maintain blood pressure]. The lymphoid organs house phagocytic cells and lymphocytes, which play essential roles in body defense and resistance to disease.
Feed Your Body With Exercise In Mind
The catch, and the key, here is that one of the most effective pumps for your lymphatic system are your muscles. The action of your muscles flexing and relaxing, and the movement of your body, helps pump the lymph fluid into, and through, the lymph nodes which clean the toxins such as proteins, dead cells, bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances from the fluid before it returns to the blood. Another movement in your body that helps lymph flow is breathing. The expansion and compression of your chest also acts like a pump for lymph fluid. During periods of inactivity, movement of the lymph fluid is sluggish. Conversely, during exercise, lymph moves very efficiently through its open system. Regular exercise, which also inspires more aggressive and deeper breathing, is one of the most important factors in maintaining a healthy lymph flow, and by extension, your heart and immune system.
If exercise which requires vigorous movement is out of the question for you, take a more gentle approach with exercises like swimming, armchair yoga, or lifting light weights with your hands and feet. Even arm circles and leg raises help. Any type of movement is better than no movement at all.
Protein, after exercise, provides the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle tissue. It can also increase the absorption of water from the intestines and improve muscle hydration. The amino acids in protein can also stimulate the immune system, making you more resistant to colds and other infections. We know you’re not aiming for the Mr./Mrs./Ms. Universe title (or are you?), but exercise has a profound effect on muscle growth which can only occur if muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown.9
One cup of grapes contains 33% of your daily recommended intake of manganese, a mineral needed to help your body produce energy, metabolize fat and protein, and keep your nerves and immune system healthy. Other sources of manganese include avocados, nuts, whole grains, blueberries, egg yolks, legumes, pineapples and green leafy vegetables.
Iron carries oxygen to all parts of your body and for necessary for energy production. When iron levels are low, red blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen to the body’s tissues, causing fatigue. Sources of iron include eggs, fish, liver, poultry, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, avocados, dates, kidney beans, and raisins.
The B vitamins help to maintain the health of nerves, as well as healthy muscle tone. B-complex vitamins act as co-enzymes and are involved in energy production. B12 and folic acid are necessary for the manufacture of red blood cells. They also help the body use iron and combat fatigue. Adequate B vitamin intake is very important for seniors as these nutrients are not as well absorbed as we age. Whole grains are a good source of most B vitamins as are eggs, brewer’s yeast, legumes, brown rice, mushrooms, and oatmeal.
Magnesium is a vital catalyst in enzyme activity, especially the activity of those enzymes involved in energy production. A deficiency interferes with the transmission of nerve and muscle impulses. It also helps prevent muscle weakness. Magnesium is also necessary for the production of adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the main energy-producing molecule in the body at the cellular level. Sources of magnesium include apricots, avocados, brewer’s yeast, brown rice, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains.
Chromium should be dubbed the “miracle mineral”. Your body needs such a small amount every day but even that small amount is important. Energy levels depend on chromium as it is involved in the metabolism of glucose, promotes fat loss, increases lean muscle tissue, increases longevity and helps fight osteoporosis. Unfortunately, the average diet is deficient in chromium due to a high intake of processed foods and sugar. Sources of chromium include brown rice, cheese, whole grains, chicken, dairy, eggs, mushrooms and potatoes.
During physical activity the body loses water primarily through sweat, even if the weather is cool or you are exercising in water. It is important to note that dehydration occurs before you begin to feel thirsty! According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), drinking enough water is especially important because with age our body is less able to regulate our temperature, putting us at increased risk of heat-related illness. Age also affects our ability to stay hydrated during exercise and our ability to recognize when we need more water. Start hydrating early by drinking 1-2 cups of water in the morning. Keep a water bottle with you all day long and drink before you get thirsty. Drink 1-2 cups of fluid 30 minutes before exercise and then drink ½ to 1 cup of fluid for every 15 minutes of exercise. Replenish fluids lost during exercise; a body loses 2.5 cups for every pound lost during exercise. Keep drinking even after your thirst is quenched.10
For quite a few decades it was though that people living with forms of arthritis should not exercise because they would do themselves more harm than good. However, now we know that exercise is an important component of managing arthritis. Exercise helps build stronger muscles which can more effectively support the joints and helps ward off the stiffness that goes hand in hand with inactivity. Exercise helps reduce inflammation and, by extension, reduces the pain that comes along with it. The more you move, the more flexible you become and eventually you’ll build up the endurance you need to stick with it for longer periods of time.
The trick is to start slowly, choose an activity you find fun, and undertake this activity at a time when it’s the least painful. You’re more likely to continue exercising if it doesn’t feel like a chore. The best time to exercise is when the pain and stiffness are at a minimum. For you, this might be after the initial morning stiffness has subsided. For others, this could be before they get too tired as the day wears on. It’s about choosing what’s best for you.
Begin your new activity in small steps. Be realistic about setting goals; remember, you’re not training for the Olympics! A good idea is to start with flexibility exercises if you haven’t been active for quite some time. Choose basic stretching exercises that have a smooth and steady flow to them. These types of exercises are meant to help improve your range of motion and are meant to be done in a deliberate and considered fashion. Never stretch too far or too fast and alternate activity with rest periods. If you need to, you can do these exercises in a chair if your balance isn’t what it used to be or if pain may keep you from participating. Don’t discount the pain or “work through it” as it’s trying to tell you something, especially if there’s swelling that goes along with the pain. However, you should also try to avoid using pain as a reason to not exercise at all. It’s really about finding that all-important balance. Starting slowly allows your body to “remember” what it feels like to move and lays the foundation for building up to more ambitious exercises with a body that’s now ready to rock and roll.
If practising movements in a chair even seems like too much, consider trying exercises done in the water. You can make use a flotation belt if you feel you need one. Exercising in the water has several benefits;
- It alleviates stress on your joints and back
- The water offers gentle resistance to movement, building strength and range of motion
- The warmth and natural motion of the water is a great relaxant.
Tips and Types of Exercise
Building strength and flexibility allows you to move along to endurance exercises. These are exercises designed to bring your heart rate up to a target level for at least twenty minutes. Endurance exercises help to build strength, keep your mind in the game (as well as your body) because you have to focus/remain committed for longer, and manage arthritis symptoms even better. Therapeutic exercises are one option you might want to consider. These are exercises which are recommended by your primary health care professional and are done with the assistance of a physical therapist or occupational therapist.
Whatever it is you decide to do, your first step should always be to consult with your primary health care professional. Having this conversation with him/her allows you to choose the right program for your needs, and if necessary, to find the right individual to work with.
It’s as important that you pick the right exercise for you, and that you get started safely, as it is that you’ve made the decision to begin an exercise program.
First and foremost, get medical clearance and then make a commitment in your own mind to your new plan. Choose a class that is structured for seniors with a certified instructor. Ensure you have all the proper equipment for that class including the proper shoes, comfortable clothing, mats, towels, goggles, etc. If you need personal items such as a back brace or tensor bandages for your ankles or knees, make sure they’re in place before you exercise. If you’ve chosen walking, make sure your route is well-lit, public, and free from obstacles. Remember not to exercise when you have a cough, fever, cold or flu and resume your program as soon as you’re well again. If you live with respiratory issues, it’s best to take note of air quality (inside and out) and make your decision as to where and when to exercise accordingly.
Your motivations should be crystal clear to you as to why you’ve decided to exercise again. This will help ward off doubts and excuses later on if you can remind yourself why you started all this in the first place. Create short-term and longer term goals and rewards for yourself and review your progress at 30-day intervals. At the outset, the following guidelines will help you ease into your new program.
|1. Warm up your muscles before you begin.
2. Start with 5-10 minutes/session, 3-4x weekly.
3. Stop if you feel pain, or are short of breath.
|4. Use a chair for balance if you think you might need it.
5. Cool down slowly, give your muscles time to adjust.
6. Drink water before, during, and after you exercise.
Consider exercising with a partner to keep you motivated, listen to music while you exercise or if you’re using an indoor treadmill, watch a movie, your favorite show, or the news while you walk.
Types of Exercises
Yoga – If bending, kneeling, and stretching is not an issue for you, a beginner’s yoga class might just be the ticket. But please note, you needn’t bend yourself into a pretzel to enjoy the benefits of yoga. Yoga movements are done slowly and deliberately, with focus on your breathing as you move, and generally end with a short span of meditation. The result is a stronger, calmer body by the end of each class.
Chair Yoga is defined as a gentle sequence of stretches done from a sitting position that stretches and strengthens major muscle groups, increases your range of motion, and eases back pain. This gentle exercise emphasizes quiet, mindful transitions from one posture to the next. After a session, participants generally feel calm, relaxed and refreshed.
Tai Chi is done from a standing position, involves bending the knees, and requires moving from pose to pose at a very slow and deliberate pace. It’s a great workout for your body and very relaxing for your mind. In each class, your instructor will teach you a series of poses which you will, eventually, put together at the end of your sessions to form one long Tai Chi sequence. Your memory and perseverance will be tested if you choose Tai Chi, but it’s great fun to learn and will stay with you for a lifetime.
Water Walking is done in an indoor facility in the shallow end of a pool. Enthusiastic participants may want to progress to the deep end where the exercise is done a little differently and where it is considerably more difficult. Keeping your spine straight, with hands slightly bent at your side, you’ll “walk” forward much in the same way you do on dry land, placing the heel of your foot down first and following through with a normal gait. The water offers resistance, strengthening your muscles as you walk around the pool. It’s harder than it sounds and gives a great workout for the core and lower body, all at the same time the water is supporting you and taking pressure off your joints as you exercise.
Walking is something we do every day and requires only that you have a sensible pair of shoes that can adequately support your feet and ankles as you walk and that you wear the right clothing for the climate you’re walking in. Where you walk is key. Some suggestions include a well-lit outdoor track or path that might include gentle inclines, inside the mall when the weather turns cold, around the garden center in the Spring, or browse the library to keep your mind engaged. You might employ a listening device if you like to multitask; you could even walk and learn a new language at the same time!
Swimming or Aquasize are great alternatives if the water is where you like to be. Swimming lengths is very relaxing and easy on the joints while giving you a great workout at the same time. Aquasize classes are taught by an instructor (either in the water or on the side of the pool) and consist of a series of exercises done in the water using the water’s natural resistance as a tool to strengthen muscles and increase range of motion, all while taking the pressure off your joints.
Light yard work certainly counts as exercise, as does ballroom or square dancing, lawn bowling, golf, cycling, Wii Fit, or any other type of activity, structured or otherwise, that gets your body in motion. Whichever type you choose, remember to listen to your body to reap the best benefits. Exercises to avoid when living with osteoporosis include anything high impact, jumping, bending, and/or twisting as these can lead to fractures in weakened bones and put pressure on the bones in your spine, increasing your risk of compression fractures.
University of Washington Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine – Exercise and Arthritis
Types of Exercise – Arthritis Foundation
Tai Chi for Seniors
Stretching Before Exercising
Yoga for Seniors
Yoga In Chairs – Beginners