House Call: Fitness and aging – exercise tips for senior citizens

he other day, I received a note from a patient who has seen me for nearly 30 years. The patient recalled a conversation we’d had many years ago when I first expressed an interest in taking care of senior citizens and remarked, “I guess we’re both seniors now!”

With spring here, I want to focus this month’s column on a subject near and dear to my heart: fitness and aging. Having made many exercise mistakes over the years, I’d like to share guidance on do’s and don’ts, as well as stress the importance of a regular fitness routine as we age.

Regular exercise can improve balance and flexibility, which helps seniors prevent falls and maintain independence. While there are numerous examples of incredible fitness achievements for senior folks (e.g., Jack LaLanne at age 60 swimming to Alcatraz while handcuffed), most of us are content to simply get in reasonable shape without injury.

One adage often used in geriatric pharmacology is to start low and go slow. This is also true of starting an exercise program. You should use low tension and low speed to begin and gradually ramp up as you get more conditioned.

It’s never too late to start

The benefits of exercise are well-documented and especially important for seniors. A recent Swedish study found physical activity was the No. 1 contributor to longevity, adding extra years to your life – even if you don’t start exercising until your senior years.

Many seniors worry they are too old to begin regular exercise, but nothing says you can’t start working out just because you’ve turned 80. In fact, the mood benefits of exercise can be just as great at 70 or 80 as they were at 20 or 30.

As people age, regular exercise is one of the best ways to preserve body function and personal independence. Exercise is linked to improved immune and digestive functioning, better blood pressure and bone density and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and certain cancers.

Exercise also improves balance and flexibility, with studies showing that walking for just 30 minutes per day reduces a person’s hip fracture risk by 25% to 30%.

Where should I begin?

Finding the motivation to start exercise is challenging at any age, but many seniors feel discouraged by aches and pains or concerns about injuries. Some of my patients have told me they are afraid to start exercise because they have arthritis and worry that they will harm themselves – but the opposite is actually true.

Joints and cartilage are nourished by movement, meaning exercise can improve joint mobility and arthritis pain. Stretching and exercises focused on balance lesson aches and injury risk by strengthening your body.

Becoming more active can energize your mood, relieve stress, help you manage symptoms of illness and pain and improve your overall sense of well-being. If you are looking to start exercise, I suggest two things: set a schedule, and find a friend for exercising.

Creating a routine makes it easier to fit exercise into your life and allows you to set reasonable expectations for yourself. Remember, you don’t need to exercise every day – it’s important to give your body a chance to rest and recover.

It’s easier to exercise when you make it a social activity. Take a walk through a park or mall with a friend, or find someone who can attend a water aerobics class with you. Exercising with friends keeps you accountable to your workout schedule and brings more fun to getting active.

Now that more seniors are vaccinated, a group walk can be the perfect way to reconnect with people you’ve missed during the pandemic.

Activities for older adults

I suggest incorporating some of the following exercises to help improve balance, flexibility and confidence. I’m a huge fan of low-impact exercises such as cycling along with mild to moderate strength training. Here are some examples:

Walking: Walking is perfect for seniors who are just starting to exercise consistently. All you need are a pair of comfortable walking shoes and a destination. Look for programs in your area if you’d like a group to walk with (community organizations, senior centers or local parks and recreations).