Years ago, conventional medical wisdom suggested seniors walk less and take it easy so as not to further stress or weaken their joints.
“There’s been a change in how we look at it over the last few years. Staying active is very important,” says Dr. Joshua Frank, an orthopedic surgeon with OrthoConnecticut (Coastal Orthopedics) with offices in Norwalk, Westport and Darien. “Now we find that exercise is beneficial to the overall health of the joints.”
Doctors recommend regular exercise to maintain overall health and keep a host of problems, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, heart issues and possibly even depression and dementia, at bay. Sarcopenia is the gradual loss of skeletal muscle with age that can start as soon as age 40 and, unless abated, can get steadily worse with some people losing as much as half of their muscle mass by age 70. Muscular loss is a leading case of falls in the elderly.
The four main types of exercise are endurance or aerobic to boost one’s heart rate and breathing; strength to increase muscular strength; balance to help prevent falls; and flexibility to keep the body limber.
“As we age, it is important to stay flexible, have strong bones, and maintain muscular strength to help prevent injuries, especially injuries that result from a fall,” says David Lo, M.D., internal medicine, hospital medicine, Western Connecticut Medical Group, Ridgefield Primary Care and Danbury Hospital. “Falls can be very dangerous as they can lead to fractures, head injuries, and loss of independence.”
The best exercises for seniors are ones focused on improving balance and stability, core strength, and flexibility. “Seniors will benefit from a combination of aerobic and strength-bearing exercises,” Dr. Lo says. “Marching in place is a great exercise … all you need to do is stand up, lift one knee as high as you can, and then switch to the alternate leg. If you need to hold onto something for balance, like a table in front of you, that is okay. Just make sure what you are holding onto is secure and stable.”
Dr. Lo also recommends low-weight strength training, using three to pound free weights, to help seniors develop and maintain bone and muscle strength, which is important in reducing their risk of developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle, which can lead to an increased chance of bone fractures and breaks.
Even if one already has joint pain, exercise can still be done. “One of the most important things is balance exercise,” Dr. Frank says. Programs like Silver Sneakers, offered at many YMCAs and other fitness clubs, are geared to seniors and address balance and overall strength. Aqua exercise is also helpful as it takes the weight off the joints, allowing one to do more exercise.
Dancing, walking, and swimming combine aerobics for cardiovascular health and strength training, Dr. Lo says: “These low-impact exercises reduce stress on joints and the risk of injury so seniors can exercise safely. Although low-impact, they are also weight-bearing exercises, which is important for bone health and muscular strength.” Yoga is also beneficial for seniors as it promotes flexibility, stability, and relaxation.
The above exercises all have the added benefit of being social activities, getting seniors out of their houses and with other people, which can improve mental health.
Moving the body more can also help the brain. “More and more studies are showing that exercise can help slow the progression of cognitive impairment and reduce the risk of dementia,” Dr. Lo says. “Aerobic activity increases blood flow to the brain. There are studies that suggest that one year of aerobic exercise can improve spatial memory and cognitive scores.” Exercise can also be helpful with managing depression. In mild cases, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant therapy, although in severe cases, pharmacotherapy is still vital.
A study recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found walking can prevent heart failure in post-menopausal women after doing a long-term study of more than 130,000 women. Engaging in an extra 30 to 45 minutes of daily physical activity can cut the risk of developing heart failure by around 8%-10%. Intensity is not a factor; rather it’s the amount of time spent walking that matters.
There are some exercises that seniors should avoid, however. According to silversneakers.com, leg presses and leg crunches can cause repetitive stress on the lower back. Running is also hard on the senior body, unless one has been a runner all one’s life. “For older and generally heavier bodies, the repeated impact of running can cause real damage when you begin late in life … if you’ve never run, age 65 isn’t the time to start,” according to a blog on the website.
Whatever exercise you choose, it’s important to do it consistently; for seniors, there is more muscle atrophy and it’s harder to bounce back and regain flexibility and muscle mass.
“It’s important to keep to a pretty regular weekly schedule, nothing too intense, enough to keep bones bearing weight and to maintain flexibility,” says Dr. Frank.