Exercise is vital for any older adult who wants to remain healthy. Studies have shown that older adults who exercise regularly have better balance and a lower risk of falls. They have better control of their blood sugar levels, better flexibility, better quality of sleep and fewer symptoms of depression. They will also improve their muscle strength and have less arthritis pain on their hips and knees.
There are many books and articles encouraging young and older people to exercise. It is easy to understand that exercise is good at any age, but to determine the right exercise program is not so easy, in fact, it can be difficult. People have different body shapes, different medical issues and different musculoskeletal problems.
That’s the reason it is not advisable to start an exercise program that is not adjusted to meet the specific needs of the individual older adult. One have to carefully choose a trainer when joining a gym or health club. Many athletic trainers are not trained to understand all the potential risks and dangers involved with training the elderly.
The elderly person needs someone who understands the subtle issues that come with aging muscles and ligaments. In addition, many seniors have arthritis and osteoporosis, which changes the normal body alignment during exercise.
Others may have degenerative changes in the spine. If a trainer doesn’t pay attention to these details, the person could get hurt. You have to train a seventy-eight-year-old woman differently than an eighteen-year-old football player. You have to be very careful.
Endurance exercise will help you to strengthen your heart and lungs. It increase your stamina as well. Many older adults have much atherosclerosis (plaque) in their coronary arteries, which places them at a higher risk for heart attacks. For older adults who have not exercised for years should talk to their doctor first before starting an aerobic exercise program. The doctor may determine whether the person’s heart is able to tolerate the increased exertion associated with exercise.
It is generally recommended that people should try to exercise for thirty minutes at 75% to 80% of their maximum target heart rate. The maximum heart rate is calculated using the simple formula 220 – your age in years.
This formula doesn’t work well for many seniors. For the older adult who has not exercised for years and wants to start exercising, it is recommended to set a goal of 60% – 65% , rather than 75 – 80%. For those who can’t exercise for the full 30 minutes, two 15 minute periods or three 10 minute periods may suffice.
Be careful before you buy any of those heart rate meters, if you are on heart medications called beta-blockers,which can slow down their heart rate. Many pacemakers regulate how fast the heart can beat. If you have an irregular heart ritme problem called atrial fibrillation, you also have to be careful. So how hard should elderly people exert themselves? It is suggested that they should be able to talk comfortably while exercising.
With stretching exercises you also have to be careful, especially if you haven’t stretched for decades. During that time your tendons ( which attach muscles to bones) and ligaments (which attach bones together), have undergone a variety of degenerative changes and the water content decreases. The water content of cartilage also decreases.
As a result, most people become less flexible as they age. Tendons and ligaments tend to tear easier and when they tear, the healing process is slower.
Here are some helpful hints on stretching from the National Institute on Aging: Stretching exercises should only be done after a warming up period by walking or some gentle bicycle riding. Especially during the winter time when your joints and ligaments are stiffer because of the cold weather.
Stretching should cause some minor discomfort, but it should not be painful. If you are getting pain, you need to lesson the tension or stop. Move slowly into a stretching position. Quick jerking motions can cause an injury. Hold the position for at least twenty to thirty seconds.
If you can’t hold the stretch that long, than you are overstretching and you need to do it more gently. We believe that all frail elderly people should consult with their physician or their physical therapist before starting a stretching regimen.
Don’t do just stretching exercises that you saw someone perform TV or at the gym. Even a yoga or Pilates class that is not specifically designed for the untrained older adult can lead to injuries.
There is some truth in the saying: “use it or lose it”. The real truth is that many elderly folks don’t have much more that they can afford to lose. This brings up the concept of functional reserve, which refers to the amount of extra work that can be done by an organ or muscle when needed. By the time some seniors reach their eighties or nineties, they have such a small functional reserve in their muscles that they can barely out of bed or walk.
Many seniors take up exercise programs that involve lifting weights. By lifting weights their muscles will grow in size and become stronger. Weight training would appear on the surface to make sense. Increasing muscle size and strength could help many seniors who have lost some of their size and strength over the years.
The real truth is that older adults need to be careful before beginning a weight lifting program. Proper instruction with the correct weight and form is critical. We cannot over emphasize the danger that a poorly designed weight training regimen poses to the joints, tendons and ligaments of seniors.
Studies have shown that a carefully designed regimen may make seniors’ muscles a little bigger and stronger.
Any benefits gained have usually been lost once the study is over. Researches have not been able to show that weight-training exercises by themselves can decrease the level of disability among frail seniors.
Some recommendations for folks who have not exercised for decades
1. Walking – it is very simple and very effective. Even 15 minutes twice a day can help improve one’s lung function and lowers the blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes. For people who are out of shape, this a nice way to exercise without putting much stress on joints.
2. Pool exercises – you don’t have to do laps in the pool. Walking in the pool or simply moving your arms and legs as you stand in the shallow end of the pool is an excellent way to exercise. Buoyancy provides support to joints during movement and even provide some resistance. Muhammad Ali used to do pool exercises to help him train for many of his fights. It works very well for patients with arthritis of the hips and knees as a way to exercise arthritic joints without putting much weight-bearing stress on the joints.
3. Stationary bicycle – when done at low speeds and low resistance this exercise can be of great benefit for patients with arthritic knees.
4. Tai chi – this Chinese martial art promote balance and strengthening without putting much stress on the joints and ligaments. Although it does not involve punching or kicking, it is still considered a martial art. It has also been shown in several studies to improve balance and decrease the risk of falls in older adults.
5. Yoga – many older adults enroll in yoga classes in order to enjoy its many health benefits. These benefits include increased flexibility, improved balance,and an improved sense of well-being. However, older adults have to be very careful. There are yoga classes that cater for clients who have medical challenges as well as older adults. Look for a yoga instructor who has experience in adapting poses for individual needs.
6. Custom exercises – for patients who can no longer walk, there are even exercises that a physical therapist can design to be done in bed or in a chair.
It is recommended to start slowly with exercise. Once started, some folks get quite motivated and exited about there new exercise regimen. The improvement in how they feel and in their exercise performance helps to motivate them further.
As the amount of exercise increases, we often see that many of them succumb to joints and ligament injuries. The point is that even if you think you can do more, it is advised not to do so.
Questions to ask your doctor:
- Is it save for me to exercise?
- What type of exercise should I be doing?
- Are there exercises I should avoid doing?
A final tip: Proceed with caution when starting an exercise program. Start easy and work your way up slowly.
by ADRIAN JOELE