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Exercise & Fitness
Exercising regularly, every day if possible, is the single most important thing you can do for your health. In the short term, exercise helps to control appetite, boost mood, and improve sleep. In the long term, it reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, and many cancers.
Why is exercise so important for seniors?
Whether you were once much more physically active or have never been one to exercise regularly, now is a great time to start an exercise and fitness regimen. Getting and staying in shape is just as important for seniors as it is for younger people.
Why is exercise important for older people? Getting your heart rate up and challenging your muscles benefits virtually every system in your body and improves your physical and mental health in myriad ways. Physical activity helps maintain a healthy blood pressure, keeps harmful plaque from building up in your arteries, reduces inflammation, improves blood sugar levels, strengthens bones, and helps stave off depression. In addition, a regular exercise program can make your sex life better, lead to better quality sleep, reduce your risk of some cancers, and is linked to longer life.
Many older adults hesitate to get moving because they’re unfamiliar with the types of exercise and fitness that are effective and safe, and aren’t sure how much exercise they need to do. The good news is that any kind of movement is better than being sedentary, so there’s nothing wrong with starting small and working your way up to longer workouts. Your goal should be no less than 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, but if you can’t start at that level, work up to it (and then past it). While there are many dedicated forms of exercise and fitness for adults, you also want to stay physically active throughout the day by taking the stairs, doing yard work, and playing with your grandkids.
When it comes to exercise and fitness for seniors, most can begin without consulting a doctor—but there are exceptions. If you have a major health condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, osteoprosis or a neurological disease, definitely talk to your doctor first. People with mobility issues such as poor balance or arthritis should also get advice from their doctor.
What are the best types of exercise?
While there are endless forms of exercise, experts categorize physical activity into four broad types based on what each calls upon your body to do and how the movement benefits you.
Aerobic exercise is marked by an increased heart rate. Although most aerobic exercises require you to move your whole body, the main focus is on your heart and lungs (Aerobic exercise is often called “cardio” because it challenges and benefits your cardiovascular system). Activities like walking, swimming, dancing and cycling, if done at sufficient intensity, get you breathing faster and your heart working harder. Aerobic exercises burn fat, improve your mood, reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar.
Strength training, sometimes called resistance training, should be performed two to three times a week. Squats, lunges, push-ups and the exercises performed on resistance machines or using weights or bands help maintain and even build muscle mass and strength. Strength training also helps prevent falls, keep bones strong, lower blood sugar levels, and improve balance. Do a combination of both isometric and isotonic exercises. Isometric exercises, such as doing planks and holding leg lifts, are done without movement. They are great for maintaining strength and improving stability. Isotonic exercises require you to bear weight throughout a range of motion. Bicep curls, bench presses and sit-ups are all forms of isotonic exercise.
Stretching exercises keep your muscles and tendons flexible, preserve your posture, and improve mobility, especially as you age. Stretching can be done every day.
Balance exercises call on the various systems that help you stay upright and oriented, such as those of the inner ear, vision and muscles and joints. Tai chi and yoga are great forms of balance exercises that can help you avoid falls and stay independent well into your senior years.
How much exercise do I need?
How much exercise you should be getting depends on several factors, including your current level of fitness, your fitness goals, the types of exercise you’re planning to do, and whether you have deficits in such areas as strength, flexibility or balance.
As a general rule, 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise) is recommended as a weekly minimum. As you become more fit, you’ll want to exceed that in order to reap maximum benefit. A natural way of splitting up the 150 minutes might be to do a 30-minute session five times per week, or you can break it up and do two 15-minute sessions during a single day. Adopt whatever schedule fits your lifestyle.
For strength exercises, aim to work all your major muscle groups twice to three times each week, leaving 48 hours between each workout for recovery. If you do “total-body” workouts, that’s two sessions per week. If you choose to split your workouts to target a specific muscle group (e.g., “leg day”), that will require more frequent workouts. Just make sure you’re leaving 48 hours of rest before you re-work a major muscle.
If you have noticed problems with your balance, such as unsteadiness, dizziness, or vertigo, talk to a healthcare provider for recommendations about balance-specific exercises. Get in three half-hour workouts each week in addition to a 30-minute walk at least twice weekly.
It’s best to stretch after you have warmed up for a few minutes, or perform stretching exercises after you completed your workout. When stretching each muscle group, take it slow and steady, release, repeat again.
But how much exercise is too much? You should expect a little muscle soreness after workouts, especially in the beginning. But if you find that your body is simply not recovering between workouts, you may be overtraining. Remember that seniors need more recovery time than younger people. With the exception of “welcome” muscle soreness, an exercise program should make you feel good. If it doesn’t, you’re probably overdoing it. That doesn’t mean you should quit, only that you should dial back the intensity or frequency of your workouts until you hit the “sweet spot” in which you’ve “tired out” your body but then recovered enough to tackle your next session with enthusiasm.
What are the benefits of exercise?
A smartly designed exercise program will benefit your body and mind in innumerable ways.
The benefits of exercise on mental health are well documented. For example, one major study found that sedentary people are 44% more likely to be depressed. Another found that those with mild to moderate depression could get similar results to those obtained through antidepressants just by exercising for 90 minutes each week. The key appears to be the release of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which help lift mood and combat stress.
We’re all familiar with exercise’s ability to improve cardiovascular health. But how does exercise lower blood pressure? Interestingly, when you stimulate your circulatory system through aerobic exercise, you’re temporarily increasing your blood pressure by forcing the system to work harder—but when you’ve finished exercising, your blood pressure drops to a lower level than it was before you began.
Many people think of exercise as an integral part of weight loss—and, although diet is also extremely important, they’re not wrong. But what exercise burns the most calories? Generally, aerobic exercises (cardio) are great for expending calories and reducing fat. But don’t overlook the effectiveness of strength training, which optimizes your body’s ratio of lean muscle to fat (It’s also the best exercise for bone strength). There’s no Holy Grail when it comes to a single best weight-loss exercise. The best exercise to lose weight is the one you’ll do consistently. Whatever gets your heart rate up and gets your body moving—while having fun and staying motivated—is the exercise that will help you shed pounds.
What if my exercise ability is limited?
Everyone can and should do some form of exercise, even if they face severe limitations. Experts have designed specific exercises for seniors that are low-impact, safe and able to be done even from a sitting position if necessary.
If you’re concerned about fall risk, balance exercises for seniors can be done holding onto a chair or doorframe. For example, standing behind a chair, you can hold its back and lift one leg to about the height of the middle of the calf of the other leg while tightening your abdominal muscles. As you progress, you might try holding the chair with just one hand and eventually letting go of the chair.
Even core-strengthening exercises for seniors can be adapted to those with limited abilities. For example, a standard plank is done by holding yourself parallel to the floor with only your forearms and toes touching the mat. An easier version allows you to also place your knees on the mat. But a still easier method is to do the plank while standing and leaning forward. You put your elbows and forearms on a desk, table or wall while resting on the balls of your feet and keeping your back straight.
There are a variety of stretching exercises for seniors to suit people of different abilities. If holding poses on your hands and knees is out of the question, you could try a full-body stretch in which you lie on your back, straighten your legs and extend your hands along the floor past your head. Some stretches can be done while seated, such as overhead stretches and neck rotations.
In fact, other types of exercise also can be done from a seated position. Other chair exercises for seniors include bicep curls (with dumbbells or elastic bands), overhead dumbbell presses, shoulder blade squeezes, calf raises, sit-to-stands (chair squats) and knee extensions.
What exercises are best for heart health?
The best exercise program will incorporate both aerobic and strength training, since that’s the best way to strengthen your entire body, improve your endurance and ensure your long-term health. But if your main concern is how to improve cardiovascular health, then you should put a premium on cardiovascular exercises that force your heart and lungs to work harder, sending oxygen to your cells. While strength training certainly does have cardiovascular benefits, cardio workouts excel when it comes to reducing blood pressure, maintaining the health of the inner walls of your arteries, releasing enzymes that break down blood clots, and even promoting the growth of new arteries feeding the heart.
Regular aerobic exercise also significantly lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes. Although diabetes usually isn’t thought of as a heart problem, a lower risk of diabetes also lowers the risk of heart disease, since high blood sugar takes a toll on blood vessels and the nerves that control the heart. When you exercise, you call on your body’s cells to take glucose (sugar) out of the blood, which they do by becoming more sensitive to insulin, the hormone crucial to glucose metabolism. That means your cells remain insulin-sensitive long after you’re finished exercising. And since obesity is a significant risk for diabetes, exercises that help you shed fat—especially around your middle—will help you keep diabetes at bay.
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