Exercise for Elders: The Best Decision You Can Make for Your Health

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Geriatrician Elizabeth Landsverk, MD, with ElderConsult Geriatric Medicine Offers Tips on Getting Started.

Elizabeth Landsverk, MD

For older adults, being physically active is vital to health and the ability to remain independent.

Physical activity and exercise are good for you – at every age. For older adults, being physically active is vital to health and the ability to remain independent. Even those who are frail or suffer from the ailments and disabilities common among elders can improve their health with moderate levels of activity. “Exercise is medicine,” says Elizabeth Landsverk, MD, founder of ElderConsult Geriatric Medicine. “It can help you control your body weight, your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels. It can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and strengthen your muscles and bones to combat osteoporosis and reduce the risk of falling. It can also improve your brain function and help prevent or slow the progression of memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia. Physical activity may even help you sleep better.”

With these benefits well established, why doesn't every older adult exercise regularly? Some think that it's too late to start or they're afraid they don't have the stamina required or that exercise will be harmful in some way. Others are concerned about the cost to join a gym or the need for special equipment. “It's never too late,” says Dr. Landsverk, “and in fact you are putting your health at risk by not exercising regularly. Getting started can be intimidating for anyone who hasn't been active in a long time but starting slowly with low-level activity for brief periods is unlikely to be harmful for most people. As we age, it is always indicated to have a physical exam, get clearance from your doctor. The physical therapist can determine the safest plan of activity. For many, the only equipment you need at first is a pair of comfortable shoes with non-skid soles.”

What kind of exercise is best for elders?
There are four types of exercise that address the four primary areas in which older adults lose ground when they are inactive. A program that incorporates all four types can help maintain these capabilities or even reverse losses.

  • Endurance, or aerobic, activities increase breathing and heart rate and improve the health of the heart, lungs and circulatory system. The best choices for elders are walking, cycling, swimming, stair climbing, and dancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults over the age of 65 get 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, again the level of activity is best determined by the physical therpist. After about six weeks at that level of aerobic exercise, most people report reduced fatigue and improved breathing.
  • Strength exercises that work all the major muscle groups – legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms – help prevent loss of bone mass, build muscle, and improve balance. Strength training, per the therapist, with weights or resistance bands is important in avoiding falls and making it easier to get out of a chair, lift a bag of groceries, open a jar, or climb a flight of stairs. The CDC recommends strength-training workouts at least twice a week.
  • Balance exercises are key to avoiding falls and the injuries that result. According to the CDC, more than 2.5 million older Americans are treated in emergency rooms every year for the injuries resulting from falls. Yoga, tai chi, and similar exercises help improve balance.
  • Flexibility, or stretching, exercises help the body stay limber and improve freedom of movement, making it easier to do everyday things like bend over, reach a high shelf, or look over your shoulder when driving.

“Older adults can achieve good general fitness in as little as thirty minutes a day,” concludes Dr. Landsverk. “It's important to incorporate all four types of exercise or activity in your routine. You can start slowly and build your endurance, strength, balance and flexibility gradually. Regular exercise or physical activity will reduce the risk of illness, injury and infirmity, increase your mental capacity, and improve your overall well-being. Put simply, staying active will make you feel better!”

Elizabeth Landsverk, MD, is founder of ElderConsult Geriatric Medicine, a house-calls practice in the San Francisco Bay Area that addresses the challenging medical and behavioral issues often facing older patients and their families. Dr. Landsverk is board-certified in internal medicine, geriatric medicine and palliative care and is an adjunct clinical professor at Stanford University Medical School. http://www.elderconsult.com

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