There is no doubt that there are major changes in the body as it ages, including declining muscle strength and slowed reflexes. These are normal but need not mean all activity should cease. On the contrary, continued mental alertness and physical activity are still desirable and reasonable goals.
Regular exercise helps improve circulation and increase muscle tone. Muscle is an active site of the body’s metabolism where food is converted to energy. Weight control is one major bonus of improved metabolism. During physical activity, the heart and lungs must work harder and they become more efficient. The heart is a muscle and, like any other muscle, the more it is used, the stronger it becomes. Breathing becomes easier and blood pressure can be more easily controlled.
The impact exercise puts on bones helps to strengthen them. As a result, bone loss (osteoporosis) is reduced; stronger bones mean fewer fractures. Exercise strengthens leg muscles allowing walking at a faster pace. This enables a person to cross a street, enter an elevator or use an automatic door more safely, decreasing the risk of falling.
Strong muscles are more useful for keeping balance, further reducing falls. People with arthritis often become inactive because movement causes pain. However, a sensible exercise program where joints are gently guided through a range of movements can ease the pain of arthritis.
The health problems that sometimes occur in the elderly often are the result of inactivity after illness or surgery. The extent of the loss depends greatly on a person’s previous activity and fitness. Someone who has kept physically active through the years has a better chance to withstand negative changes that occur during a time of enforced rest.
Another benefit of fitness is faster recovery from the illness or surgery. The ability to walk, dress, bathe and prepare meals will be regained faster (or not even lost!) than it will be for a weaker person. Only 20 minutes of physical activity three to five times a week is enough to contribute to a healthier and more independent life for seniors. So many benefits from so little time spent.
After inactivity, loss of strength can occur to a point where a person is noticeably less independent and able to perform simple tasks. There can be a rapid decline in endurance, flexibility, balance, walking, bone strength and muscle strength.
The time of inactivity after illness or surgery can cause havoc with an older person’s strength. Each day spent in bed results in a 1- to 1.5 - percent loss of strength. The lost strength takes twice as long to regain as it does to lose.
The reduced strength is seen especially in the legs and weaker legs mean an increased risk of falling. There is also less chance to recover balance after a slip or stumble if the legs are weak. Furthermore, a weaker person who falls may not be able to get up. This could result in long, painful hours waiting for assistance.
Maintaining independence is a major concern for many seniors as they grow older. Research has found a relationship between arm and hand strength, and the ability to perform everyday tasks such as dressing, washing or grooming. A person with weak arms and hands may end up needing help with these tasks.
A weaker older person is also more likely to need help with heavier household tasks like meal preparation, grocery shopping and laundry. The inability to complete these tasks and care for oneself leads to a loss of autonomy and life satisfaction.
Time to strengthen those muscles!
Even though reduced muscle strength is a normal consequence of aging, research shows that no matter what your present age or fitness level, your strength can be improved. Benefits are possible for both men and women.
The goal of any exercise program for a senior is to strengthen heart and muscles to a point where the person is able to remain independent and fully active. When you are older it will take about three times longer to regain lost strength than it would have when you were younger, but it is worth the effort you put into it. The improvement will depend on your current level of strength and the type and amount of activity you do. Activities such as walking, gardening, swimming, cycling, golfing or Tai Chi are all excellent choices. They are gentle, enjoyable and offer you the benefits of physical activity.
Think of several activities you used to enjoy and consider how you can begin to do them again. Once you have come up with ideas, vary your choices so you do not become bored or risk injury from repetition. Plan your schedule so that you walk to the mailbox instead of driving. If your arthritic joints are unusually painful, choose to exercise in the water for a few days instead of walking.
Some older people want more advice and guidance to help them keep active. If you are one of these, a planned program of strength training may meet your needs. A helpful program would provide low or medium resistance, with high repetition exercises three to five times per week. The exercises would focus on muscles in the upper and lower body. Part of the program might include wrist or ankle weights, free weights or weight machines.
Swimming offers a range of health benefits but if you need the incentive of being in a group, a water activity could be exercise in an aquacise class. Classes for seniors are moderately paced and fun. Regardless of the option you choose, an exercise program should take about 30 minutes daily to complete. Exercising up to five times per week is your goal, although the program’s intensity should match your current fitness level.
Even if you have medical problems, research has shown you would benefit from a strengthening program. The exercises can meet specific needs in your daily life such as getting in and out of bed, rising from a chair or climbing stairs. Low resistance exercise using rubber surgical tubing is another way to improve your strength.
Before you begin an exercise program, you need to discuss it with your family doctor. If you have few medical concerns you may decide to join a group exercise program at a seniors’ or recreation centre. If your health is less stable you may need an exercise program designed for you by a physical therapist or an exercise physiologist. High blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis or lung disease are not barriers to exercise but may require close monitoring during your program.
Simple strengthening exercises can vastly improve your ability to function. It is never too late to start. You may also be surprised by the enjoyment and sense of well-being you experience by regular activity.