Exercise for the Elderly: Good for the Body, Good for the Soul

As we age, few things become more apparent than how much slower we move or more forgetful we are than we were 20 years ago.  Unless, of course, you’re Demi Moore and your body is literally incapable of aging past the age of 21.  If you are fortunate enough to have no genetic predispositions to disease or chronic health conditions, you have my congratulations. (Just don’t gloat to the rest of us, okay?)

Let’s face it: We’re not going to be in the same physical condition at 75 as we are at 45. People are living longer thanks to advances in medications, treatments and technology, but that’s also leading to an increase in health problems. The number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, is growing at a rapid pace—and a big reason for that is a longer life expectancy.

While genetic factors play a significant role in how we age, there are some key proactive approaches that can help our bodies and minds age gracefully. Exercise is one of the most important influential lifestyle factors that we can control, and it boosts the health of not only our bodies, but our minds as well.

Exercise is Key

Someone once asked me, “As you age, would you rather have your body give out or your mind go?”

I recall my answer vividly. I immediately blurted out, “I would rather my mind go so that I’m not aware of what’s going on with my body!”

Exercise for the mind and the body is imperative to the aging process. It increases our quality of life both now and in the future. Hoping to get out of it by saying it’s too late; you’re past middle age and any exercise you do now won’t do any good? Not so fast: Research proves that it’s never too late to start.

Why is Muscle Mass So Important?

Inevitably, muscle mass deteriorates as we age. According to MedicineNet.com, we lose three to five percent of our muscle density per decade, beginning in the fourth decade of life. It continues to decline one to two percent every year after the age of 50. Muscle is vital to keeping bodies strong and balanced.  Muscle mass reduces the risks from major injuries, such as a hip fracture and also aids in mobility.

Muscles can–and do–react to low-intensity activities such as walking, dancing and gardening as well as light weight lifting.  These activities reduce the deterioration of muscle mass and aid in rebuilding muscle mass that has already been lost. Exercising can also reduce the risk of broken bones, which can become increasingly common with age. Women, for instance, may be affected by osteoporosis after menopause which leads to easily fractured bones; exercise can help improve bone health and reduce the risk of fractures.

Does Exercise Help Cognitive Function?

Brain tissue density also deteriorates as we age. A substantial decline in brain tissue occurs after age 55 and involves the tissue responsible for thinking and memory. The decline in brain tissue has also been linked to cardiovascular health or fitness.

Brain neurons are the cells responsible for thought, movement and basic bodily functions, and they’re also involved in memory. So far research has shown that these neurons actually increase in number after just a few days or weeks of regular activity. Studies indicate that the fittest individuals have higher scores on tasks like coordination, scheduling, planning and memory, according to article on Senior Exercise on MedicineNet.com. Simply put, the more physically fit you are, the more brain tissue you may have.

What Type of Exercise Should I Do?

The American Heart Association regularly publishes guidelines for the recommended amount and frequency of physical activity in older adults. Here are some of the current recommendations:

  • Aerobic exercise which includes walking, jogging, dancing, biking and swimming. To promote and maintain health, older adults need moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes, five days each week, or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes three days each week.
  • Resistance exercise which includes weight lifting and calisthenics. To promote and maintain health and physical independence, older adults will benefit from activities that maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance. This can include brisk walks, water aerobics or similar activities at least two days per week.
  • Flexibility exercises, such as Pilates. To maintain the flexibility necessary for regular physical activity and daily life, older adults should perform activities that maintain or increase flexibility at least two days each week for at least 10 minutes per session.
  • Balance exercises to reduce risk of injury from falls.  Older adults with a substantial risk of falls, such as those with frequent falls or mobility problems, should perform exercises that maintain or improve balance. One simple activity is to use the back of a chair to balance your body, then balancing on one leg at a time without using the chair for support. Or do some dynamic walking in your living room; simply walk in a straight line while slowly turning your head from right to left simultaneously.

Exercise is tremendously beneficial for both the body and mind, and it’s never too late to start. All it takes are some simple exercises and workouts a few times each week to start building muscle mass, slim down your frame, improve your balance and even boost your brain function. Don’t like to exercise? Find yourself an exercise buddy so you can motivate each other. It only takes 21 days to form a new habit, and you may be surprised by how much you actually enjoy it.

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