National Senior Health and Fitness Day is May 26th this year, so let’s get moving seniors! While the recommendation to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program is solid advice, you can get started with movements as common as walking up and down the stairs of your home, or lifting “weights” such as soup cans or water bottles. The idea is to get moving and enjoying the mental and physical benefits that come with it. With spring temperatures pleasantly on the rise, it’s an ideal time to take a walk outside or get that garden patch cleaned out and ready for planting a few healthy veggies that you’ll enjoy later this summer. Start with an easy level of exercise that is right for you, and do check with your doctor before ramping up to a higher intensity or new activity.
Chronic health conditions and exercise do mix
Those with chronic health conditions don’t need to count themselves out of an exercise routine – in fact, the opposite is usually the better option. Doctors typically encourage physical activity to patients with chronic conditions because it can improve symptoms and overall health, mood, and mental acuity. Exercise is a great way to strengthen the heart and lower blood pressure – two key measures of heart health. Chronic pain associated with arthritis and osteoporosis can be reduced as gentle exercise relieves joint pain and stiffness and helps build muscle. Ongoing research also suggests that exercise can slow down brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Caregivers can include physical activity into the caregiving routine and even benefit from the movement themselves.
What kind of exercise is right for you?
Certain exercises can be more or less helpful to a specific health condition, so understanding the following four categories of exercise can, quite literally, get you moving in the right direction. Optimally, doing more than one type of exercise will get you in the best overall shape and keep you from getting bored, so mix and match as much as possible.
By slowly and steadily increasing your breathing and heart rate, endurance exercises strengthen the heart, improve circulation, and lung capacity. You’ll gradually build up stamina to keep going over the long haul, which means you’ll have more energy to do the things you enjoy. Getting in the habit of endurance exercises can also increase your confidence to try different types of exercise. Endurance exercises include:
- Brisk walking or jogging
- Yard work such as raking the lawn
- Climbing stairs or hills
- Tennis, basketball
Strong muscles make it easier to do everyday things such as carrying groceries, getting up from a chair or climbing stairs. Exercising for bone and muscle strength is particularly helpful for those experiencing osteoporosis. If you have weights or resistance bands that’s great, but a two-pound sealed bag of rice or laundry soap jug will do. In fact, the movement – even without weights – is beneficial. Throwing an imaginary “punch” into the air using vigorous, controlled movement builds strength and balance! Strengthening your arms, legs, and core middle are the essential areas to focus on. Try some of these movements to build strength:
When you think about it, balance is part of so many of the movements we make throughout the day such as walking, bending over to pick something off the floor, or carrying a basket of laundry from one room to another. We want to do those movements without falling, and that’s where improving balance comes into play. Balance exercises improve coordination and teach you to find that steady footing needed to prevent falls. Improved balance, gait and strength are cited for the growing therapeutic use of non-contact boxing for Parkinson’s disease patients. Initial research appears to indicate that vigorous exercise such as non-contact boxing promotes the growth of brain cells that Parkinson’s patients have lost. Improve balance by:
- Standing on one foot
- Heel-to-toe walk
- Balance walk
- Leg lunges
- Standing from a seated position
- Non-contact boxing
The ability to stretch or flex your body comes in handy when you need to look over your shoulder to back your car out of the driveway, or bend at the knees to grab an item from a bottom cupboard. People with arthritis can especially benefit from flexibility stretches, but don’t work on an area if inflammation or swelling are present. Flexibility, like balance, improves your odds of avoiding falls, particularly if you work on the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Flexibility exercises primarily involve stretches, but remember you’re practicing flexibility as you bend down to tie your shoes or spin a hula hoop around your waist just for fun. Work on flexibility with these stretches:
Looking for some exercises to get started? Workout videos for seniors and examples of many of the exercises listed here can be found at the National Institute on Aging’s YouTube Channel.
Spend a little time thinking about how to create a safe environment in which to exercise. It’s well worth the effort so you don’t end up injured or in a precarious situation that could have been avoided. Whether you choose to exercise inside or outdoors, keep these common sense guidelines in mind:
- Warm up with light activity so you’ll be limber and flexible before moving on to more intense work. This avoids unnecessary strain on the body.
- Listen to your body: if you get dizzy, experience blurred vision, have chest pain or pressure, stop working out and rest. If the symptoms persist seek out medical attention.
- Drink liquids. Especially if you sweat, you need to replace fluids to keep your body functioning well.
- Wear comfortable clothing and appropriate shoes for the activity you’re doing.
- Check that the area is free of trip or fall hazards, and the surface isn’t slippery or uneven.
- Keep your phone close by if you’re exercising alone so you can quickly call for help if needed.
Exercising outdoors in the sun and fresh air can be exhilarating, but think about these environmental factors before you get going:
- Extreme hot or cold weather can be dangerous. Be mindful of outdoor conditions and modify your routine if necessary. For example, put on sunscreen and bring more water when it’s sunny and hot. Dress in layers to protect against cold. Learn to recognize signs of heat exhaustion or hypothermia.
- Make sure motorists and bikers can see you by wearing brightly colored clothing or reflective clothing in non-daylight hours. Always walk facing oncoming traffic. Don’t assume a driver sees you at a crossing. Try to make eye contact on approach.
- Stay alert to your surroundings. If you listen to music on headphones, keep the volume low so you can still hear and stay out of the way of traffic, bikes, and others. Avoid areas that are deserted or feel unsafe.
- Use the right equipment. For example, if you’re biking, wear a helmet, and make sure the bike is in good repair. Take a short test drive to adjust the seat and assure that everything feels good to you. Brakes and tire pressure are two important items to check.
It’s about moving and having fun!
Exercise can indeed be as good as medicine for achieving good health. But unlike medicine, there’s an element of fun with exercise. Taking a walk with a friend, playing with your grandchild at a local park, or riding your bike to the library to pick up a book all provide good exercise, but they also put you in a positive frame of mind. Lifting weights or doing stretches may be more solitary activities, but you can take a class or go to the gym if that provides better motivation. Even when the act of exercising itself isn’t exactly fun, there’s pride in taking action that leads to a better quality of life.
Seniors have lived a lot of life, yet there are always new or creative ways to experience it. Incorporating exercise, in its many shapes and forms, is one way to keep things fresh and fun. As the motto for Senior Health and Fitness Day 2021 goes: “Life is better in motion!”