Despite all we know about the benefits of exercise, about half of North Americans over the age of 60 describe themselves as sedentary. Your strength and endurance have a huge impact on your ability to live independently as you age. After the age of 50, we lose muscle strength at a rate of 15 per cent every 10 years. After the age of 70, that rate increases to 30 per cent of muscle strength lost every 10 years. This loss is especially great in older women compared to men the same age. Recent research found that 45 per cent of women older than 65 years, and 65 per cent of women greater than 75 years, could not lift 10 pounds.
Need more reasons to exercise? Exercise can improve sleep and ease depression. Getting out to exercise allows you to socialize more, reducing isolation. Put simply, exercise increases your life span and improves your health. This is true whether you have been active your whole life or begin an exercise program in your senior years.
Before starting to exercise, it is important to see your family doctor. At the doctor's office, you will be asked specific questions and have a focused physical exam. Review your medications as part of this assessment. Your doctor may recommend an exercise stress test to check how well your heart functions. There are very few reasons why your doctor might recommend delaying an exercise program. Your age is never a reason not to exercise.
There are four general categories of exercise.
1. Aerobic exercise (also called endurance)
Aerobic exercise includes walking, biking, yard work, swimming, aqua jogging, and golfing (without a cart!). Include 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day at least three days each week. The 30 minutes do not all have to be done at the same time. Three small sessions of 10 minutes throughout the day work in the same way. During your workout, you should be able to carry on a conversation (the talk test!). If balance is a problem for you, start with balance and strength training exercises.
2. Strength training (also called resistance)
Strength training is the easiest type of exercise to do at home. It is also the most important type of exercise to include in your day as you grow older. Even as little as one day of strength training each week will improve both strength and agility. Aim to include strength training at least two to three times per week. (See sidebar for specific exercises.) Exercises should focus on all major muscle groups. Each exercise should be repeated 12 to 15 times at a time. As your strength improves, increase the number of repetitions, add another set (of 12 to 15 repetitions) or increase the resistance.
3. Balance and weight transfer training
Balance and weight transfer training is especially important to help reduce falls and the fear of falling. Good balance is related to the ability to live independently. Examples of balance and weight transfer exercises include Tai Chi, stepping over objects, climbing up and down stairs slowly, maintaining balance in a moving vehicle (like a boat or bus), and standing up from a chair without pushing with your arms. Once you master these movements, make them more difficult by closing your eyes or standing on one foot. Balance exercises can be easily included in your daily routine. For instance, take the stairs instead of an elevator.
4. Flexibility training
Flexibility training (stretching) has never been proved to help prevent disease or disability. However, it may reduce the stiffness of rheumatism. If you plan to stretch, do so regularly. Stretch all major muscle groups slowly, without bouncing, while you are still warm from a workout.
Listen to your body and its warning signs. If you are sore the day after exercising, you may have done too much too quickly. If pain or discomfort persists, consult your doctor. You should also talk to your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:
It is never too late to start! You don’t need a membership at the local gym to begin an exercise program. You can even do it in the comfort of your own home. Your exercise prescription should be suited to your needs and desires.
Choose comfortable clothing and shoes with good grip and support. If you are not already active, start slowly with easy tasks. Exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous or at high intensity to gain all of the health benefits. Remember to drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise. Try not to eat a large meal within two hours prior to exercising. Use a walker, cane or wheelchair if necessary to help you with balance. You can use household items, such as soup cans, for weight. Turn on music or the television to prevent boredom. If weather is a barrier, join a mall-walking seniors group. Most important, recruit others to join you and choose activities you enjoy.
Keep in mind that half of all people who begin a vigorous training routine drop out within a year. The key to gaining and maintaining physical fitness is to find activities that excite, challenge, and satisfy you. Good luck!