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Exercise for Successful Aging

By Samantha Jordan, DPT, OCS, CSCS

Unfortunately no matter how hard we try to take care of ourselves we will all experience physiological aspects of aging. Knowing what to expect and practicing some healthy lifestyle habits can help you stay looking and feeling young.

The Effects of Aging

  • Loss of bone and muscle mass cause decreased strength and increased risk of fractures.
  • Changes in our soft tissue can lead to decreased flexibility, breakdown of cartilage and can contribute to osteoarthritis.
  • Our heart becomes less efficient so we become more easily fatigued.
  • Our metabolic rate slows down and we do not burn as many calories for the same amount of work that we once did so without changes to our diet and exercise we experience weight gain.

How Exercise Can Help
Exercise can help us combat the effects of aging by helping to maintain weight, muscular strength, and bone health. It can also help to manage chronic conditions by lowering blood pressure and helping to control blood sugars with decreased need for medications. Aerobic exercise strengthens our heart which improves stamina and reduces fatigue levels. Studies have shown that exercise can help to delay effects of dementia. Exercise releases endorphins which are feel-good chemicals that boost your mood. The overall main benefit of exercise is that it can help adults stay as healthy and active as possible to continue to complete the daily activities that they enjoy.

Components of Physical Fitness
When designing an exercise program you want to include activities which will help to improve the four main components of physical fitness:

  1. Strength
  2. Balance
  3. Endurance
  4. Flexibility

Most types of exercise address some but not all of these components so it is important to mix and match with your exercise program to address all components of fitness.

What is recommended for the Older Adult?
Commonly recommended exercises for older adults include: walking, tai chi, yoga, water aerobics and strength training.

Walking is a great aerobic exercise that can help to improve your cardiovascular system. It is a popular option as it is inexpensive and can be performed nearly anywhere. The main drawback of walking is that walking alone without any other type of exercise will not help to improve strength or flexibility. General recommendations for walking (or any aerobic activity such as biking or swimming) is to perform 30 minutes of exercise within your target heart rate zone 5 days per week. Your target heart rate zone is between 50 and 85% of your maximum heart rate and your maximum heart rate is the number 220 minus your age.

For example, take a fictitious patient named Gary who is 67 years old. Gary’s maximum heart rate is 220-67 which equals 153 beats per minute. To find Gary’s target heart rate range we take 50% and 85% of 153 and come up with a target heart rate range of between 77 and 130 beats per minute.

Tai chi is a Chinese based form of exercise combining deep breathing with low speed, low impact motions. Practicing Tai chi can help to improve balance and flexibility.

Yoga is a form of exercise over 5000 years old which combines breath control, and meditation with the performance of physical postures called asanas. Yoga also helps primarily to improve balance and flexibility.

Performing exercises in the pool can reduce pain related to osteoarthritis both during and after exercise. Water aerobics primarily help to boost our endurance, strength and balance.

People can gain strength at any age! Strength training can be performed at a gym with machines or free weights, in the pool or at home with no equipment at all!  Strength training not only helps to improve muscular strength but also bone strength, balance and weight management.

General recommendations
Choose exercises which you enjoy and address all four components of physical fitness, balance, flexibility, endurance and strength.

  • Try 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week (swimming, walking, biking, jogging, water aerobics, pickleball, etc.) and strength training 2-3 times per week. You can add in a yoga or tai chi class or do simple stretches at home to address balance and flexibility as well.
  • Find an exercise partner- Exercising with a buddy helps to hold us accountable and make the time more enjoyable.
  • Schedule exercise into your day. Prioritize that time like any other appointment and reschedule if necessary but do not cancel that time.
  • Work simple exercises into your day- Park further away in the parking lot, take the stairs instead of the elevator, do exercises like marching or heel raises next to your counter when waiting for your coffee or brushing your teeth.
  • Set goals and assess your physical fitness to assess your progress- time yourself for a given activity such as walking ½ a mile and watch that time drop as you improve. Measure your waist circumference instead of checking your weight to more accurately assess progress.
  • Start slow and gradually increase activity. Do not be too hard on yourself. Even starting 2 days per week and gradually increasing can make a significant difference to your health.

Remember, not all exercises are good for everyone. If you are suffering or have a history of a musculoskeletal injury such as back pain, hip pain, knee pain etc. or have had a recent surgery ask your doctor or talk to a physical therapist prior to initiating a new exercise program.

Samantha Jordan has her Clinical Doctor of Physical Therapy from Clarke University in Dubuque, IA. She is an Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, certified and trained in CPR, Graston Technique, Evaluation and prescription of custom shoe orthotics, WorkWell Functional Capacity Evaluations and also teaches a running clinic.

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