The benefits of exercise have no age limit. Some people might think that once a person reaches a certain age exercise might just be a waste of time. The goal isn’t to help your parent prepare for the next Senior Olympics. The goal is more practical. Improving and keeping strength and balance is one of the most important things a person can do to prevent falls. Also exercise will increase endurance so it is easier to do more during the day. That is just a beginning of the value of exercise.
When a person is in better physical condition and exercises regularly some of the other benefits include
- Improved mental awareness
- Easier breathing
- Better digestion
- better appetite
As we age through the decades almost all of us get more sedentary. The more time we spend sitting the weaker we get and the less endurance we have. This cycle is never ending until it is very hard to walk though a grocery store or even manage around the house.
One of the serious consequences of all this sitting is the impact on balance. If a person is not stimulating the systems in the body that maintain balance, these abilities are weakened. Weakness and loss of balance are a bad combination and can lead to falling. Falling leads to injuries like broken bones and head injuries. Falling can also be the cause of loss of independence.
Physical decline can be slowed or held to a minimum with exercise. Weakness and loss of balance is not an automatic result of living a long life. They are the result of inactivity. Sometimes people who are afraid of falling decide that moving less is safer. In reality the opposite is true. More moving around reduces the risk for falling. Also more exercise helps maintain bone strength.
Regardless of age, every plan for exercise should include four types of exercise. For more information about exercises later in life take a look at the National Institute for Aging’s Go4Life®
- Endurance exercises. Some good examples are walking, jogging, riding a bicycle, and swimming. These exercises generally make a person breathe harder and increase heart rate. Most of these exercises will also build strength of the larger leg muscles. This helps reduce falls and makes it easier to get up out of a chair.
- Strengthening exercises. This means exercise that includes challenging muscles against some resistance. This could be done using exercise equipment in a fitness center but it could also be accomplished using simple things like small weights or resistance bands. Or, without any added tools a person can use their own body weight through the activities listed in endurance exercises to increase strength.
- Balance exercises. Balance exercises are the most important to reduce fall risk. Balance exercise includes most exercise done on your feet that involved movement. This movement stimulates sensory input to your eyes, your vestibule system and through your joints. Tai chi is terrific – so is dancing.
- Flexibility exercises. Flexibility exercises include stretching and reaching. When the body is more flexible it is easier to bathe, dress and put on shoes.
Start slowly and build gradually. Some say a good way to add movement to the day is to get up and walk every hour. Just a walk around the house is a good start. Or, if your parent can’t walk alone around the house a few exercises done in a chair help. The main idea is do something today and maybe a bit more tomorrow. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate, active exercise. That might sound like a lot but is only about 21 minutes a day.
Unfortunately it doesn’t take a very long to lose muscle strength. An illness confining a person to bed for a few days can lead to serious muscle loss resulting in weakness, lack of stamina and poor balance. It takes a long time to build muscle strength and endurance so this will require patience and persistence. It is not unusual for an older person to work on strengthening exercises at least twice a week for three months before seeing noticeable improvement.
Before your parent starts a new exercise program the two of you should talk with her doctor to find out if there are any limits to be aware of, or any types of exercises that should be avoided. You might also ask for a referral to a physical therapist who can set up an exercise plan and help your parent decide how to add exercise into her daily routine. It is not unusual for a physical therapist or an exercise trainer to guide older adults to have a doable, successful exercise routine. Even if your parent has never been one to exercise, now is a good time to start.
If your parent works with a physical therapist or a personal trainer the process will likely start with a few questions to understand where to begin. Questions like:
- Are you often tired?
- Can you climb a flight of stairs?
- Can you walk one block?
- Have you lost weight recently?
- How is your appetite? Has it changed recently?
- What kinds of activities do you do routinely? For example, gardening, taking a walk, playing ping pong, golfing.
There are lots of ways to build exercise into a daily routine. Some do better when they exercise with other people. Places like Senior Centers, Assisted Living and Nursing Homes have exercise programs. There are classes at fitness centers and YMCAs.
Organized exercise routines are not the only way to add exercise into the day. Ordinary activities of daily living are also exercise. Activities like cleaning the house, raking the lawn, walking the dog, or chasing grandchildren.
Even a person well into her nineties can benefit from exercise. I know of one 94 year old who even has a personal trainer. You know the Nike slogan – Just do it! Or as the Romans used to say, perge movere (keep moving).