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Seniors: It’s never too late to start exercising

May 25, 2016 | UC Irvine Health
women exercising on balance ball

Older adults have certainly earned the right to rest and relax in their golden years. But that doesn't mean sitting in a rocking chair in front of the television day in and day out.

Health experts are adamant that physical activity should be part of everyone's life — no matter your age or health status. 

However, it can be daunting for people ages 65 and older to start a fitness program. Many seniors wonder if it's simply too late to start exercising.

Move more, feel better

The answer is no, says Dr. Vinh Nguyen, a geriatrician with the UC Irvine Health SeniorHealth Center and assistant clinical professor.

"We see older adults as people who are more sedentary and less active for a variety of reasons, whether it's because of arthritis or other ailments," he says. "But people need to be aware that the more they move, the better their heart, lungs, mind and body are going to work."

Older adults reap just as many benefits from exercise as younger people, he says. Aging involves the gradual loss of muscle mass. But by staying active, people can retain more muscle. That can make a significant difference in maintaining independence as you age.

"Being independent means so many things," Nguyen says. "It's about doing all of the things you're used to doing: driving, cooking meals and the activities of daily life. It's also about keeping your mind sharp and preventing depression."

Guidelines for activity

More older adults today are meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you're 65 years of age or older, are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions, you should follow one of these guidelines:

  • Two and a half hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms), or
  • One hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as jogging or running) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week, or
  • An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week

Even if health problems prevent you from meeting the minimum guidelines, try to do as much as you can, CDC officials advise. There are many fitness resources for older adults, including those with physical  limitations or chronic illnesses.

SilverSneakers and other programs

"Everyone can find somewhere to start," Nguyen says. "The thing that is actually a barrier for older adults is that they don't know what kinds of resources are available in the community."

For example, he says, many senior centers have fitness classes, and lots of gyms, pools and aquatic centers have programs tailored to seniors. At the UC Irvine Health SeniorHealth Center, a social worker keeps tabs on community resources to recommend to patients.

Moreover, one out of five people age 65 and older are eligible for the SilverSneakers fitness benefit. If you’re a group retiree or part of a Medicare health plan, you may have a SilverSneakers membership that entitles you to access a gym or fitness program at no cost.

Older adults with physical limitations or chronic health problems may need to consult a doctor or physical therapist when they begin an exercise program, Nguyen says. According to the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, 50 percent of adults with disability get no aerobic physical activity even though regular exercise can provide important health benefits.

Staying fit at home

"For my patients who have difficulty with balance or are prone to falls, I recommend going to a physical therapist who can teach them different home-based exercises," he says. "For people who don't want to go to the physical therapist, I advise them to start exercising by using their biggest muscles. Often that means using their legs. Hold on to a chair or table to balance, then squat and stand up. That strengthens the core."

Additional resources are available from the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.

Nguyen says he's always impressed by the positive results seen in older adults who begin exercising.

"I've seen patients who are bed-bound or wheelchair-bound become mobile again and engaged in the community again," he says. "It's incredible. Sometimes the issue is that they've had an injury or illness and no one has ever tried to get them active again. Find out what your limits are, and see what kinds of gains you can make."

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