Do you ever wonder if seniors workouts are appropriate? George Burns (who lived to be 100) used to say, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!” It’s true that some individuals are blessed with good genes, and no matter how many unhealthy lifestyle habits they have, they’re going to live into old age. But for the rest of us who might be concerned with quality of life as we age, exercise is one of the keys. Is it ever too late to start? Research proves it’s not. In this article, I’ll discuss the benefits of exercising into old age and then give you some tips on how to get started no matter how old you are.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by the year 2030, the number of individuals in the United States 65 years and over will reach 70 million, and people 85 years and older will be the fastest growing segment of the population. Some of you may already be there, while others may be approaching. But whatever your age, exercise can help. Below is a description of what happens to our bodies as we age and how exercise can make all the difference.
As many of us have already noticed, muscle mass decreases as we age. Beginning in the fourth decade of life, adults lose 3%-5% of muscle mass per decade, and the decline increases to 1%-2% per year after age 50. Muscle keeps us strong, it burns calories and helps us maintain our weight, and it is also an essential contributor to our balance and bone strength. Without it, we can lose our independence and our mobility.
The good news is that muscle mass can increase at any age in response to exercise. In an important study of weight lifting and older adults conducted with 100 male and female residents of a nursing home in Boston (age range: 72 to 98 years of age; average age 87), subjects lifted weights with their legs three times a week for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, there was an increase in thigh mass of 2.7%, walking speed increased 12%, and leg strength increased a whopping 113%! In a similar study of adults 65-79 years old, subjects who lifted weights three times a week for three months increased their walking endurance by 38% (from 25 minutes to 34 minutes) without appreciable increases in mass. Ida Weiss, a 91-year-old participant in the Boston study, had the following to say after the study, “It’s very beneficial for me. Things that I couldn’t do when I came here, I can do now. I didn’t think that I was going to live anymore, but I feel different now.”
Balance decreases as we age, and consequently, falling is a major problem as a result. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of every three Americans over the age of 65 falls each year, and among individuals 65-84, falls account for 87% of all fractures and are the second leading cause of spinal cord and brain injury. The good news is that physical activity can improve balance and reduce the risk of falling. The results of a study of 256 older adults (70 to 92 years of age, average age 77) who participated in tai chi for six months found that there were 52% fewer falls in the individuals who did tai chi compared to those who didn’t, and there were fewer falls overall among the individuals who did tai chi compared to those who didn’t (28% versus 46%).
In an even more convincing study called a meta-analysis, where researchers combine the results of many studies on the same subject, it was reported that muscle strengthening and balance retraining exercises in 1,016 older men and women (ages 65 to 97) reduced the risk of falls and fall injuries by as much as 35%-45%.
One of the important conclusions of the research is that it’s important to select balance-training exercises that are specific to activities that you do during the day. For instance, you might want to do balance exercises on one leg that mimic the act of walking if you are unsteady while you walk (when you walk, one leg is in the air). Tai chi is excellent for this because it involves slow, coordinated movements, and is particularly beneficial for balance since you lift one leg frequently while doing it.
One of the most exciting areas of exercise research is the investigation of cognitive function. What scientists have learned so far is that brain neurons, the special cells that help you think, move, perform all the bodily functions that keep you alive, and even help your memory, all increase in number after just a few days or weeks of regular activity. In other words, senior workouts contribute to building brain tissue.
In a recent study of 1,740 adults older than 65, researchers found that the incidence of dementia in individuals who walked three or more times per week was 35% lower than those individuals who walked less than three days per week.
The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recently published guidelines for physical activity in older adults. Here is a summary of the recommendations.
Aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, dancing, biking, swimming, etc.): To promote and maintain health, older adults need moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes five days each week or vigorous intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes three days each week. (Moderate intensity is when you feel “warm and slightly out of breath,” and vigorous is when you feel “out of breath and sweaty.”)
Resistance exercise (weight lifting, calisthenics): To promote and maintain health and physical independence, older adults will benefit from performing activities that maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance for a minimum of two days each week. It is recommended that eight to 10 exercises be performed on two or more nonconsecutive days per week using the major muscle groups.
Flexibility exercise: To maintain the flexibility necessary for regular physical activity and daily life, older adults should perform activities that maintain or increase flexibility at least two days each week for at least 10 minutes each day.
Balance exercise: To reduce risk of injury from falls, older adults with substantial risk of falls (those with frequent falls or mobility problems) should perform exercises that maintain or improve balance.
Check back here next week when we will list easy exercises that can be done by most anyone at any age. Consider asking your professional caregiver to assist your loved one, (after seeking your doctors permission) , the results might just surprise you and them