Exercise Resource Guide for Seniors
Written by: Daniel Gleich
Retirement and all of the freedom that it brings often causes people to view the senior years as the golden years of life. While this may be true for many, seniors may also face other, less enjoyable changes, such as weight gain and the risk of diseases including heart disease and certain cancers. A decrease in bone density, muscle strength, and mental acuity is also a potential concern for older adults. Living a lifestyle that includes healthy foods and physical activity can help slow down and potentially avoid some of these threats. According to recommendations laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone should perform some kind of moderate exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes five days a week. Starting at 65, people should also add balance exercises at least three days a week to help prevent injuries from falling. While one’s senior years aren’t too late to make exercise a routine, older adults should have an understanding of what exercises are necessary for good health.
Stretching is often seen as a pre-workout activity to prevent injury. While that is true, it isn’t the only reason older adults should include stretching as a part of their physical activities. On its own, stretching can help relieve stiffness, improve one’s range of motion, and aid in reducing certain types of pain. Stretching can even help reduce stress. To avoid injury, one should initially hold each stretch for between 15 to 30 seconds and stop if it feels uncomfortable or painful.
Balance is a necessary part of everyday functioning, like walking or dressing. As a person ages, they can develop issues with maintaining their balance. As a result, they are at greater risk of falling, which is a leading cause of senior injury and death. Exercises that help with balance disorders work the legs as well as the lower back, abdomen, pelvis, and hips, which are known as the core muscles.
There are many simple balance exercises that one can do from the comfort of home. One such exercise involves standing with one’s body weight equally distributed between both legs and with feet hip-width apart. The individual then shifts their weight to one leg while lifting the opposite leg and holding it for as long as 30 seconds. They then return to the starting position and repeat the process on the opposite side. Other balance exercises include standing on one foot or walking in a straight line while placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe. Yoga is another practice to improve balance, and it’s also a social opportunity.
People with certain disabilities or mobility issues may find it difficult, if not impossible, to perform exercises in which standing or being on the floor is a requirement. Fortunately, there are many exercises that one can do while sitting or with the help of a sturdy chair. Examples of seated chair exercises include tummy twists, isolated triceps extensions, knee extensions, and neck turns. Modified squats, sit-to-stands, and modified planks are just a few examples of exercises in which the chair serves as support or as a part of the exercise itself.
Cardio and Low-Impact Exercises
Seniors can burn calories and fat when they engage in cardio exercise. Also known as aerobic exercise, cardio is an intense form of exercise that raises one’s heart rate and increases oxygen in the blood. Cardio is good for bone density, the heart, cognitive function, and sleep. Running is one example of a high-impact cardio exercise. Some older adults, however, may find that higher-impact exercises are too jarring for their bones and joints and may prefer a lower-impact option. Low-impact cardio, such as walking and water aerobics, generally do not ask the individual to lift both feet at the same time. This is an excellent choice for seniors who suffer from conditions such as osteoporosis but want the healthful benefits of doing cardio. Seniors who want a more brisk workout without the intensity of high-impact cardio may consider moderate-intensity exercises like brisk walking, swimming, or even dancing. Tai chi is also an example of low-to-moderate-intensity exercise that’s suitable for senior citizens.
Loss of muscle mass can cause frailty and make it difficult for seniors to do even the most routine tasks. Strength training is necessary to help combat the loss of muscle mass that comes from aging and living a more sedentary lifestyle. It can also help reduce the symptoms of certain diseases and conditions, such as the pain associated with arthritis. Strength exercises, which typically require the use of weights, can also help improve balance in those with balance disorders. People with diabetes may find that strength training helps improve glycemic control as well, and because muscle burns fat, it can also aid in weight loss.
Besides needing more activity, people also need sufficient nutrition. Senior bodies require more protein to help maintain muscle mass. When preparing meals, they should include proteins such as eggs, dairy, fish, or meat, all of which also provide vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient for seniors, as it supports the immune system and bone health while boosting cognition. A B12 deficiency can cause problems such as anemia, memory loss, and neuropathy. Unfortunately, the body’s ability to absorb vitamin B12 decreases with age.
Foods that contain potassium, vitamin D, calcium, and dietary fiber are also essential. Meals should also include plenty of vegetables and fruits. While fresh produce is a desirable choice, it can be expensive for those on a limited income. Eating canned or frozen vegetables and fruits is a healthy option. Foods to avoid or reduce include those that can increase the risk of conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. In general, foods to avoid are those that contain added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats.
There are many resources available to help seniors live healthy and productive lives. As always, one’s doctor is the first person to contact before starting any new exercise routine. Doctors can tell their patients if it is safe for them to exercise and offer advice on what forms of exercise to try or avoid. They may also refer certain older adults to a dietitian or a physical therapist to help with issues of balance or strength. One should also look into senior centers, community centers, and gyms, as they may offer exercise classes that are specifically for older adults.
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