Why should older adults exercise? The list is as long as your arm but many of the reasons will come back to being strong and mobile, helping to keep independence, reducing the risk of osteoporosis as well as keeping ones dignity.
Ultimately as we age we will slow down. Exercise, in the form of aerobic exercise, stretching and strength training can slow this process and that’s what we all want. We don’t want to lose our independence by having people help us to the bathroom or to wash ourselves. We want to be as young as we can for as long as we can. To continue doing the things we enjoy. Going out with friends, enjoying a sport, walking, cycling, running or playing with grandchildren.
Doing exercise will help you do all of that and more for longer. Not only will it help the body but it has been proven to help with the mind. (Improves cognitive function, reduces feelings of drepression and anxiety, improves mood and helps protect from degeneration in specific areas of the brain)
Most older people will be able to do more than they think. They just find it harder to get started. There is a stigma that they can’t hit the gym or do weights, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
You don’t have to run. General walking or climbing stairs will do, cycling and swimming are great as they are low impact sports. Anything to get the heart rate up and your breathing slightly faster will improve your fitness and endurance levels. However it is important to try and increase the duration or intensity of these over time, especially as you start out. You have to stress the body somehow, even if its only slightly, for it to improve. Otherwise it adapts and knows what you’re throwing at it. Remember the heart is a muscle as well and needs stress to strengthen it. Another benefit is weight or fat loss once you start regular exercise. If you lose weight and reduce your body fat percentage, there will be less stress put on your heart and other organs, which is only a good thing as we age.
As we age our muscles shorten and become less elastic, joints weaken and flexibility is reduced. This is due to reduced water content in connective tissues like ligaments and tendons. Stretching improves flexibility again, it also improves balance and dynamic stretching, in particular, has been shown to lengthen muscles and increase energy levels by increasing circulation and nutrient flow throughout the body. Incorporating stretching into a workout or doing separate stretching classes is hugely important in helping older people.
Strength Training and flexibility
Incorporating strength training along with stretching and endurance exercises will be important for mobility. There are several reasons to keep your muscles as strong as possible.
They help prevent diseases like osteoporosis or reduce pain in osteoarthritis, they also help keep your mind young by slowing the aging process in areas of the brain. Most importantly though, they help you do everyday activities – think about your daily movements. From swinging your legs out of bed in the morning and standing up, to walking down the stairs, getting in and out of your car or just sitting for long periods in a chair or at a desk. As we age we tend to get slower at all of these tasks or can’t do them for as long. Keeping strong and flexible will improve every aspect of your day and make it a whole lot easier. Sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass after the age of 30) can be as high as 3-5% per decade – particularly in men. This is why strength training is so important – it helps maintain muscle mass, which in turn helps keep you active and mobile. It improves balance and flexibility and also improves bone strength to help prevent breaks from a fall.
I remember reading a fascinating article, many years ago now, about an elderly gentleman in his 80’s who spent most of his time in a wheelchair. A physio/personal trainer believed there was nothing stopping him being active and mobile again, other than himself. Within 6 months he was doing barbell squats and other weightlifting exercises. This elderly gentleman had convinced himself that he was too old and what he was going through was down to his age and just accepted it. Once he had changed his mindset and started doing strength training exercises, taking very small baby steps at first, he was able to throw his wheel chair away and move freely without any assistance. This whole story encompassed everything that is good about strength training for older people and how a lot of it is down to mindset. This gentleman:
- Had broken the negative cycle of thinking ‘I can’t’ with ‘I can’
- He had accepted that it wasn’t an overnight fix
- Improved his independence – by increasing his strength, he had also improved his balance and mobility. He was now able to climb stairs and get up from a chair unaided
- He had regained his dignity by being able to wash, bathe and go to the bathroom by himself
- His stronger muscles had improved his posture. As he got stronger he actually grew taller by being able to stand his true height
- He had more energy to do things he once enjoyed doing
Osteoporosis and Bone mass
Osteoporosis is a bone disease that causes a loss of bone density. As a result the bones become weaker and may break more easily from a fall. It is often an age related disease found in older people and can be concurrent with sarcopenia.
It is not only osteoporosis that causes weaker bones. After the age of 40 we lose as much as 1% bone mass every year if we don’t prevent it with exercise and adequate nutrition. As we have discussed in previous posts, strength training helps to build and maintain muscle mass, however it also leads to stronger bones. The stress put on the bones helps to increase bone forming cells, which increase bone strength and density. Strong bones help to prevent fractures resulting from a fall.
Once we overcome this stigma about exercising and in particular, strength training, as we get older, we realise how vital it is. It could be said that after 40 it becomes more important than ever to exercise in order to slow the aging process and keep us active in our later years. Not for cosmetic reasons, but for health reasons to maintain a certain standard of living. Getting started is often the hardest part for all of us, we will find any excuse to put it off because it starts off being something we really don’t want to do. However if you can look just one day ahead rather than thinking about the whole process it will become easier. One day will become two, which will soon become a week and once you get over that initial hurdle it becomes a lot easier.
- After 30 years old we start to lose muscle mass
- After 40 we start to lose bone mass
- As we age our muscles become shorter, less elastic and joints weaken
- All this starts to lead to a more sedentary lifestyle which becomes a downhill spiral
- We can prevent or slow this aging process by exercising.
- Endurance training to allow us to perform activities for longer and strengthen the heart.
- Strength training to help keep muscle mass which helps keep us moving freely, improves posture leading to less aches and pains. Improves the mind. Increases bone strength and strengthens joints
- Stretching to help keep the muscles, tendons and ligaments elastic which helps to allow the muscles to work to their optimum ability and release energy
- It’s never to late to start and even most gentle exercises are safe, even for people with medical problems. There will always be something small that virtually everyone can do.
- Don’t put it off until tomorrow otherwise you’ll never do it. Start a plan today