Seniors should aim to stay active through a balanced regime that includes aerobic or cardio, muscle-strengthening, balance-focused, and flexibility-training exercises. Such a regime allows you to build on all the building blocks of fitness. Working out a healthful exercise schedule is a matter of addressing these building blocks, while doing things you enjoy.
The benefits of staying active as a senior
There are a number of myths when it comes to exercising as a senior. Some older people think that getting older means it’s inappropriate for them to exercise. Others believe that being older means their bodies don’t need exercise, or even that it’s actually dangerous for them and could lead to injury and falls.
However, the opposite is true. The research linking exercise with improved mental and physical health outcomes in seniors is extensive. Some experts suggest that as much as half of all age-associated physical decline may be due to lack of exercise. Currently only 10 per cent of Australians over the age of 50 get enough exercise to receive cardiovascular benefits.
Age-related physical decline and exercise
Age-related physical decline includes reduced muscle mass, strength, and physical endurance. There may be reduced coordination and balance, along with lower joint flexibility and mobility. Many seniors experience lower bone strength, reduced cardiovascular and respiratory function, with corresponding increases in blood pressure, body fat, and mood disorders.
Exercise can in fact counter these trends in seniors. In fact, it has been found to be the number one contributor to longevity.
- Muscle mass – Regular exercise has been associated with increases in the amount and size of muscle fibres. Evidence suggests that muscle mass can be improved after just a short period of regular physical activity, as opposed to years of regular exercise.
- Bone health – Regular exercise can also have a positive effect on bone density, cutting the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis. One type of exercise in particular – weight-bearing or strength-training exercise – can keep bones stronger.
- Joints – Exercise has a positive impact on also the joints, and aerobic and strengthening forms of activity in particular can keep joints supple and flexible. People with arthritis can benefit from regular exercise.
- Heart and lung health – Regular exercise can also boost heart and lung health. The best form for this area of the body could be moderate-intensity exercise.
- Weight control – At the same time, exercise assists with weight control and avoiding too much body fat, which is linked to a range of chronic diseases. Exercise can reduce body fat levels by increasing muscle mass and boosting the metabolism while burning calories.
- Illness and chronic conditions – Exercise tends to alleviate the impact of illnesses and chronic conditions while reducing the risk of these occurring. Those who exercise often have stronger immune and digestive systems (improved gastrointestinal function), and they have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers, along with reduced risk of stroke, depression, and dementia.
- Risk of falls – Exercise can reduce the risk of falls by as much as 16 per cent in seniors. Some research shows that the best fall-prevention exercises are those that include balance training that’s done for more than two hours a week over a period of six months.
- Mental health and brain function – Exercise is strongly linked with improved mental functions in seniors, in both those with and without dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Regular exercise can have a positive effect on everything from memory and executive function to attention and processing speed.
Some forms of exercise have been linked with specific health outcomes. Resistance training in particular can improve blood pressure levels, cholesterol levels, and glycaemic control. The differing benefits of different types of physical activity is why a balanced exercise program is important for maintaining health.
Incorporating different types of physical activity
Given that research shows that different types of exercise can have specific health benefits in different areas, the most effective exercise program is likely one that includes thefour building blocks of fitness. This can be described as a balanced exercise program – one that incorporates balance, cardio or aerobic, strength and power training, and flexibility. Incorporating different types of activity can also make exercise more interesting and varied. It can encourage you to keep going even if you initially think you dislike getting active.
1. Balance activities
These activities focus on building balance and stability. Examples of balance activities are yoga, tai chi, and posture practices that help you stay balanced. Balance activities could improve posture and reduce the risk and fear of falling. Experts recommend doing some balance-based exercises every day.
2. Cardio or aerobic
Also known as endurance activities, cardio or aerobic physical activities help you get your heart rate up and quicken your breath. This form of exercise also has major muscle groups working in rhythm in a repetitive manner so that you can build strength in these areas. Examples are swimming, walking, cycling, climbing stairs, hiking, rowing, tennis, dancing and cycling.
Experts suggest that seniors aged 65 and older should do at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days if not every day. If you’re just starting out, begin with just 10 minutes a day, and add five extra minutes every fortnight until you reach the target 30 minutes a day.
Examples include brisk walking, water aerobics, dancing, tennis, and volleyball. If you can still talk but not sing the words to a song while exercising, you’ve probably reached the moderate-intensity level. It’s also fine for seniors to engage in vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, especially if you’ve been doing it for a long time, but do follow safety procedures and guidelines if you do.
3. Strength and power training
Strength and power training activities allow you to build up specific muscle groups through the use of weights and other equipment such as elastic bands. Power training is included in strength training, but with a focus on improving your power and reaction time. This type of exercise strengthens bones, builds muscle, and can boost balance.
Strengthening exercises are usually done in reps and sets, with a rep a full movement of the activity, and sets referring to the group of reps. For example, you might do 12 reps in a set of exercise, and do three sets in a sitting.
Experts suggest that, to get the full benefits, you should do muscle-strengthening exercises to the point where you’re finding it hard to do another rep. Other than lifting weights, using elastic bands, or working with a trainer in the gym, you can do everyday activities to build strength. Carrying groceries, heavy gardening, and jumping and stepping all strengthen different muscle groups.
How much strength and power training is suitable depends on your unique situation, but some experts suggest 1 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions at moderate intensity, two to three times a week might be appropriate for seniors.
A balanced exercise regime ideally also includes flexibility exercises. This type of activity enhances the function of your joints, and supports you in free range of motion. Examples include yoga, along with stretching of all types. You can improve flexibility also by doing daily activities such as moving your neck to look around, bending over to tie your shoes, and playing with your pets or grandkids. Experts recommend doing some stretching every day.
Tips for exercising as a senior
Getting active might seem intimidating, especially if you’ve been living a sedentary lifestyle, but these tips will help you make the healthful transition to more active living.
Have a plan
Set out a plan in a notebook, diary, or computer file and write down your activities, start date, and daily timetable. Set some goals. By writing it all down, you’ll have a clear plan to follow and be able to track your progress.
Involve your friends, colleagues, and neighbours in your exercise program. This can keep you motivated to continue, and you’ll have more people to share your fitness journey with.
Choose activities you like
Doing things you naturally like means you’ll be more likely to continue to stay physically active throughout the long term. If you have to force yourself to exercise, you’re more likely to give up. Whether you enjoy the water, music and dancing, or a round of golf, do more of what you like doing. If you don’t know what you like, experiment and find out what appeals to you.
Change it up
Pay attention to your enjoyment levels. If you find yourself getting bored, change the time, location, or even the activity. Your enjoyment is important, so keep a list of things you’d like to try next.
Eat well to support your exercise levels
Support your active lifestyle by eating well and by staying hydrated. If you’re unsure about what and how much you’re eating, check the recommended portions of each food group. By eating well, you can facilitate a more active and healthful lifestyle and reduce the risk of illness and disease.
Seniors with activity limitations
Seniors with chronic illness and activity limitations can still participate in exercise, but it’s always best to check with your doctor or other healthcare professional for advice on what and how much you can do in terms of physical activity.
Some seniors have activity limitations that make it hard for them to do aerobic exercise, but they’re still able to do other types of exercise, such as strength and flexibility training. Consult your doctor about the best way for you to stay as active as you can.
A healthier, happy life with regular exercise
Many older Australians still believe in the myth that getting physically active is not appropriate for them as they get older. The research shows that having a balanced exercise regime that includes all of the building blocks of physical fitness could support better health outcomes for seniors. Staying active could be the most important thing you do to keep well, maintain a high quality of life, and increase your lifespan.
CUA Health has been helping Australians care for their health since 1976. We’ve put 40 years’ experience into creating health insurance that takes care of you – like value-for-money Hospital and Extras cover, with flexibility to meet your needs as your life changes and the freedom to choose your healthcare provider. To learn more about CUA Health Insurance click here.