By: John Roberts
“All parts of the body if used in moderation and exercised in labors to which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy and well developed, and age slowly; but if unused and left idle, they become liable to disease, defective in growth, and age quickly.”-Hippocrates
Few things benefit the body more than maintaining physical fitness (anyone remember Jack LaLanne)? While doctors routinely recommend exercise for younger patients, we’re realizing how critical it is for our older patients as well. Regular exercise, even in one’s senior years, can still reduce your risk of a number of health conditions, particularly heart attacks, strokes, and falls. It also may be one of the few things that helps slow the onset of dementia.
Most communities are blessed to have many options available to seniors for exercise, especially programs that are supervised. I prefer supervised activities because a trained professional typically leads the individual or a group. This person can make recommendations to get the most out of a program in the safest way possible.
Why is regular exercise so important for seniors? You may have noticed that as our bodies age a number of physiologic changes occur. We lose muscle mass and tone that leads to weakness and difficulty with balance. Flexibility becomes an issue (the most common cause of leg cramps at night). Our bones become weaker from reduced weight-bearing activity. Balance problems along with poor flexibility and weak muscles often lead to falls and fractures. Our hearts and lungs can also get out of condition resulting in reduced stamina and difficulty breathing with activity. This can lead to a reduced level of confidence and independence.
Regular exercise can go a long way to delay or even reverse some of these effects of aging. Exercise is a critical component in the treatment and prevention of conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
Exercising in the water is one of the best and safest ways for seniors to work on their fitness. Aquatic programs are excellent for people with painful arthritic joints, particularly the knees, hips and back. Water buoys up the body, reducing stress on the joints. The natural resistance of the water helps build and tone muscles and also improves balance. I had one patient a few years ago who faithfully attended his aquatics classes and was able to graduate from his wheelchair to using a walker.
Exercising on dry land is certainly acceptable. Again, I usually recommend supervised programs like Silver Sneakers®. This is a program that is available to all seniors. Many Medicare Advantage plans even pay for memberships at a partnered exercise facility because they know that regular exercise greatly reduces hospitalizations and medical expenses. More information on the program can be found at www.silversneakers.com. Simple things like gardening, yard work, or walking are certainly better than sitting all day. Walking should always be done in a safe area that is flat and well lighted.
Another benefit of regular exercise that most seniors don’t consider is socialization. Seniors often become socially isolated either through the death of a spouse and/or loss of friends. This was certainly been exacerbated by COVID-19. Organized exercise programs provide a way for seniors to get out and interact with people. Most seniors who have joined one of these programs can’t wait to get back for the next session. Regular exercise is also very good for improving mental health and keeping the mind sharp.
Many seniors simply don’t want to be bothered with a formal exercise program. Any exercise is better than no exercise, but seniors need to be careful not to do too much too fast. Certain medical conditions may preclude doing certain types of activities.
If you are considering starting an exercise program, it’s always a good idea to discuss it with your health care provider. This is true especially if you suffer from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, lung disease, have had a stroke or smoke. Your doctor may even provide you with an “exercise prescription” that outlines what he or she wants you to do or avoid. “A great set of basic exercises for seniors can be found at bit.ly/3zmEhtJ. “Just Do It” – it’s not just for the young!
– Dr. John Roberts is a retired member of the Franciscan Physician Network specializing in Family Medicine.