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The Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

The Benefits of Exercise for Seniors

Exercise Is the Single Most Important Component of Successful Aging

The following is taken from the University of Southern California, Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

Exercise is the single most important component of successful aging. This is because exercise more than anything else enhances all the other strategies for successful aging.

  • exercise improves mood and attitude,
  • it directly decreases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's,
  • it demands better nutrition due to improved appetite and results in better sleep,
  • it reduces stress and
  • it often does away with depression.

In order to be effective, the exercise must be frequent, and it must be demanding. Simply sitting in a chair and waving one's arms or legs for a few minutes is ineffective. The person who exercises must breathe heavily, must sweat, must use weight-bearing routines (to offset the effects of osteoporosis) and must keep it up for a reasonable period of time. It should be done at least 4 to 6 days a week for a total accumulated time of 30 to 60 minutes each day. Exercise should be hard and should not be easy.

It is interesting to note that numerous studies have concluded that in order for exercise to be effective it must be done to the point of breaking a sweat. So many exercise programs for seniors are nothing more than non-demanding movement programs which may speed up the heart rate and free up stiff joints but which do little to improve cardiovascular function, grow muscle tissue and induce the other benefits that retard the aging process. Exercise must be challenging and it must be frequent.

Studies of the effects of exercise on older adults have shown that many physical problems that people think are inevitable with old age are usually the results of inactivity. According to the President's Council on Physical Fitness, about 25% of the population of the United States is physically inactive. Studies have shown that inactivity increases with age. By age 75, about 33% of men and 50% of women do not engage in any kind of physical activity.

Older people do not exercise for many of the same reasons younger people don't exercise - lack of interest, time and energy to name a few. Socioeconomic conditions present obstacles to some older persons. Studies have found that there are relationships between "less advantaged" demographic groups and poor health outcomes. Lower socioeconomic status is related to being overweight, having high blood pressure and having diabetes. Many of these are the direct result of lack of exercise. Being older and having an income of less than $10,000/year are also associated with greater likelihood of a decline in physical activity - which is probably a major factor in poor health profiles.

Without sufficient exercise people begin to gain weight, putting additional stress on the heart and lungs and on the weight bearing joints of the knees, hips, ankles, and feet. The joints become stiff, creating a greater risk of losing balance, falling and breaking bones. Inactivity also causes a loss of muscle mass and strength which causes yet another situation in which the individual is at risk of losing balance and falling. Cardiovascular performance becomes impaired without adequate exercise, and as a result, the risk of heart disease increases. Inactive persons will also feel less energetic, less motivated to seek social and intellectual stimulation, and may experience symptoms of depression.

Seniors also deceive themselves about the need for exercise and maintaining good health. They generally think they are healthier than they really are. The United Health Foundation released a report in 2013 entitled America's Health Rankings Senior Report. Here are a few of the findings.

  • approximately 30% of all seniors report complete physical inactivity
  • approximately 25% of all seniors report being obese, but insurance companies report that senior applicants for life insurance who do not meet insurance company weight requirements represent about 85% of all applications
  • only 37% of seniors report good health status
  • nearly 8 in 10 seniors are living with at least one chronic health condition and 50% have two or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • about 20% of older Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes
  • more than 70% of seniors have heart disease
  • nearly 60% of seniors have arthritis, a leading cause of disability

The Benefits of Exercise on the Aging Process

Some of the benefits of remaining physically active for older people include

  • reducing the risk of losing balance, falling and fracturing bones
  • reducing high blood pressure which in turn reduces the risk of heart failure, stroke and kidney failure
  • reducing stress
  • reducing symptoms of depression
  • alleviating joint pain and swelling from arthritis
  • improving sleep
  • elevating mood
  • forestalling or eliminating the development of cancer or other debilitating diseases
  • forestalling or eliminating the development of dementia

Researchers at Tufts University suggest that exercise is the single most important factor in maintaining healthy functioning as individuals age. The body simply works better and regenerates better with exercise. It is likely that challenging, frequent exercise postpones the development of major diseases and body disorders. It may even eliminate them altogether. One study found that after one year of regular physical activity, men aged 55-65 were found to have significant increases in several lung functions including forced expiratory volume, ventilation, and oxygen uptake. There were also improvements in flexibility, and a greater level of high-intensity leisure time activity.

A study examined the subjective effects of aerobic exercise training on psychological, cognitive, and physiological functioning among healthy older adults. The study found that those who participated in 4 months of aerobic exercise or yoga perceived significant improvements in sleep patterns, self-confidence, social life, loneliness, family relations and their sex life (Emery and Blumenthal, 1990).

It has been found that older people who are physically active are faster at cognitive tasks such as encoding, recognition, rehearsal, and initiating commands than non-active older persons. This suggests that aerobic fitness has positive effects on cognitive aging (Toole et. al., 1993).

It used to be accepted that older people could not increase their muscle strength or muscle mass. However, recent research has shown that even very old people who are frail could increase their strength through regular exercise. At the end of a 6-week weight training program, frail older individuals whose average age was 90 had increased their muscle strength by 180 percent. Two participants no longer needed canes and average walking speed increased 48%. Remarkably, they found that weight bearing exercise increased muscle mass at about the same rate as in younger people and non-weight bearing exercise resulted in increased flexibility in these nonagenarians.

In the past few years, the term "physical gerontology" has been introduced to describe physical activity programming for older adults that incorporates sport and exercise. A balanced mix of physical activity and stimulating recreation with social aspects is an important part of a preventive health model aimed at promoting successful aging.

Where and When to Exercise

There are many settings for older persons to exercise. Exercise programs for older people may take place in senior and community centers, adult day health care, and even nursing homes have recreational activities geared toward the needs of their residents. Planned communities for the elderly have even started to add exercise programs that go above and beyond targeted physical therapy.

For those who have known medical issues, the first step to starting an exercising program is to get a clearance from the doctor. The doctor may also suggest what types of exercise would be appropriate if his or her patient is suffering from a disorder where certain types of exercise would be harmful.

All new exercise programs must start out gradually. Overdoing it can actually harm muscle tissue and injure joints. As the body adapts to the new challenge, the intensity, frequency and duration should be increased. Here are some suggestions on how to get started before moving on to a more regimented exercise program.

  • where possible take casual walks
  • use video programs for low-impact activities such as yoga or tai chi
  • deliberately use the stairs more often even as a form of intended exercise
  • spend more time gardening or golfing

Various Types of Exercise Programs

We won't take the time here to describe the various types of exercise programs that seniors could engage in. There is plenty of supportive information in the community to help with exercise activities. Promotion of physical activity is big business and there are plenty of magazines, community programs, advisers, personal trainers and all kinds of other support.

More than 40% of senior exercise clients drop out of recommended exercise programs within the first 6 months so it is very important to clearly understand the benefits of exercising to reinforce sticking with it.

For individuals who are in a care setting and suffering from dementia or debilitating disabilities, routine exercise may not work. In this case, activity programs should be designed to improve the overall wellbeing and reduce isolation and depression. This can include group recreational programs. An example is group movement therapy programs. Group movement therapy programs take place in a variety of settings such as adult day care centers, senior centers, nursing homes, and other group settings. They are designed to accommodate different levels of abilities by incorporating activities that stress involvement of the body, mind and spirit.

Examples of activities in a group movement therapy program might include dance, deep breathing and relaxation techniques, theater games, memory reinforcements, sensory training, and intergenerational games. Warm up activities might include using musical instruments, deep breathing, creative dance, or muscle warm-ups. There is a heavy emphasis on relaxation techniques, imagery, and touch.