Lots of things change as we age. We’re often emotionally better off: our outlook can become more positive, and patience and serenity are hallmarks of this time of life. “Older and wiser” aptly describes many seniors. We need less sleep. Fewer calories are necessary to maintain a normal weight.
On the flip side, it’s easier to put on unwanted pounds without eating more. Our sense of taste often diminishes, leading people to lose their enjoyment of food–which increases their risk of shedding too much weight and becoming malnourished. Falling and staying asleep may be difficult. We might notice that our muscle strength isn’t what it used to be. Cardiovascular issues are increasing causes of concern for both men and women. After retirement, when the activity that has occupied people for their entire adult lives comes to an end, isolation, loneliness, and health concerns can have a detrimental emotional effect on seniors.
So how do we make sure we combat this inevitable change?
Why Exercise Is Vital
Of all the habits we’ve developed over the years, one of the first things to go is often the incentive to keep moving. Going to the gym seems like a daunting task. Fear of falls is a real concern: according to a Harvard Health Publishing article, seniors visit emergency rooms every eleven seconds for injuries resulting from a fall. Tragically, every nineteen minutes, an elderly person passes away as a result of a fall. Lack of sleep often means less energy for exercise. Loss of muscle strength makes working out harder than it used to be. People gain weight without eating more or lose too much weight because sensory changes make food less appealing; either one can sap your energy and make getting off the couch a difficult proposition.
Yet, these realities make exercising more vital for maintaining balance, muscle tone, bone strength, sufficient sleep, a healthy weight, brain function, emotional well-being, and healthy cardiovascular and immune systems. Read on for some elder-friendly physical activities that provide all of the above perks without putting undue stress on our changing bodies and minds. If you’re new to working out, trying out a new activity, are injured, or have a chronic condition, check with your doctor before you begin.
So let’s go over some ways to stay active and keep exercising as you get into your older years. But first – there are some important things not to do!
What Not To Do
A word to the wise: anyone over 65 should avoid these exercises.
- Squats with dumbbells or weights
- Bench and leg press
- Long-distance running
- Abdominal crunches
- Upright row (pulling dumbbells or a barbell vertically as high as shoulders)
- Deadlift (lifting a loaded bar or barbell to hip level and lowering to the ground)
- High-intensity interval training
- Rock climbing
- Power clean (quickly lifting a barbell in one continuous motion off the floor to shoulder level)
Swimming, aka the world’s perfect exercise, is deserving of this moniker. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to reap the benefits. Water aerobics, swimming laps, playing games with your grandchildren, or simply walking around in chest-deep water are great for cardiovascular health and muscle strength. Because pool exercise is kind to bones and joints, it’s ideal for people with osteoporosis and arthritis. There’s another plus: jumping in is as beneficial for brain health as it is for body strength!
According to a Tufts University report, researchers have found that individuals between 60 and 70 have suffered a 12% loss of muscle; by the time people are in their 80s, the number jumps to 30%. In addition, abdominal fat (with its accompanying risk for cardiovascular disease) becomes an increasingly serious concern as people age. But the Tufts research isn’t all gloom and doom. Researchers have determined that, for seniors, strength training is highly effective in helping to slow this decline. The good news is that it isn’t necessary to bench press hefty weights to see positive results. In fact, starting with simple bodyweight exercises is a safer option.
Climb stairs. Go up the steps at a pace that’s comfortable for you and go back down. Repeat as many times as you can. As you grow stronger, increase your speed.
Stand on one leg. If necessary for balance, hold onto a chair or wall without using it to support your weight. Start at thirty seconds and gradually increase the time you maintain the position. Switch to the other leg.
Repeat each of these exercises ten times:
Do squats. Lower your body to a chair but stop before you actually sit. Return to a standing position.
Recline on a bed or floor. Bend your knees. Lift hips and hold the position for three seconds. Return to the starting position.
Stand facing a wall and rest your hands on it with elbows bent. Push back from the wall until your arms are straight. Return to the starting position.
These inexpensive, lightweight, portable aids make your workout more effective without stressing your bones and joints. Exercise band exercises can be done anywhere. Don’t forget to throw one into your suitcase when you travel!
These exercises are great for getting you started:
Sit straight in a chair. Take a resistance band and hold it in front of your chest. Spread your arms out until the band touches the middle of your breastbone. Move your arms back to the starting position.
Stand with the band under your feet and one end in each hand. Lift the band up to your chest and lower to the starting position. Repeat ten times to start and increase as you grow stronger.
Sit in a chair and tie the ends of a band together. The loop should be just big enough to fit around your legs. Slide the band up to just below the knees. Spread your legs apart as far as possible and hold for a few seconds, then slowly return to the starting position. Repeat ten times.
Sit on a bed or the floor with your knees bent. Put the band around one foot and hold the ends. Gradually straighten that leg and maintain the position for a few seconds. Bend your knee again. Repeat ten times and switch to the other leg.
Walking has many perks. It’s easy on your joints. You don’t need any special equipment. It maintains and increases bone density (a boon for those with osteopenia–lower-than-normal bone mass–or osteoporosis). You can do it anywhere. It can be adapted to a distance, speed, or time that is right for anyone. Even a person who uses a walker or cane can benefit from this exercise. Walking increases muscle strength, keeps your ticker going strong, and lessens the risk of diabetes, strokes, and colon cancer.
Here are some ideas that make walking a pleasure:
Find an easy park path or trail. Walking outside is a boon for psychological as well as physical well-being.
Walk with a friend. Having a buddy is great motivation for sticking with the routine. What’s more, social interaction, conversation, and camaraderie keep your brain young, reduce dementia risk, and give you an emotional boost.
Visit a zoo. Even a slow-paced walk with frequent stops counts as good exercise.
Get out into nature. A natural environment improves awareness of where you are in space and is great for relaxation and lightening your mood. Traversing varied terrain improves balance, agility, and strength.
Listen to an audiobook, music, podcast, or anything else that suits your fancy to stimulate you as well as entertain.
As mentioned above, falls are a big concern for seniors. Fractures (which can affect mobility and quality of life for years to come), head trauma, and other complications negatively affect people mentally as well as physically. The inner ear, vision, the sense of touch, and other physical functions work in tandem to assist us in maintaining balance. They don’t function as well as people grow older, but taking steps to keep them working at an optimum level can slow this decline.
Caution is key. If you’re at a high risk of falling, make sure a spotter is nearby.
Stand in front of the kitchen sink, hold onto the edge, and rest a foot on a step stool. Stand straight and lift your hands slightly. Lift your foot from the stool and lower it. Repeat several times on each side. If you’re ready for something more challenging, stand on one leg with your hands hovering above the surface so you can hold on if you feel unsteady.
Stand with your feet apart at shoulder width. With your arms extended at your sides, slowly raise one knee. Straighten the leg in front and maintain for thirty seconds. Do the same with the other leg. Repeat three times.
With your arms extended at the sides, keep your eyes on a fixed object. Start walking. Pause for a few seconds when you lift each foot. Begin with 20-30 steps in a straight line. For a variation, stand with heels touching a wall. Walk heel to toe for twenty steps. This easy exercise is great for a strong core, posture, and balance.
If you’re up for more of a challenge, stand and put your weight on one foot. Your arms can be in any position that’s comfortable. Put the sole of your other foot on the side of your thigh, shin, or ankle (not your knee). Hold for one minute and repeat with the other foot.
The goal of these exercises is to strengthen your core muscles (those in your abdomen and lower back). Their beauty lies in the fact that you don’t need strenuous exercises to improve muscle strength, posture, and balance. Perform these moves in order for maximum benefits.
Inhale through your nose and breathe out through the mouth. While exhaling, pull abdominal muscles in and up.
Stand up straight, keeping your feet firmly pressed on the floor. Put your hands behind your head and press it into them. Keep your elbows visible as you look ahead. Twist to the right, return to the center, and twist again. Then repeat to the left. For an extra challenge, lift the right heel as you twist left. Repeat four to twelve times in each direction.
Stand up straight and take a deep breath. While you exhale, put your hands on your thighs, round your shoulders, and gently bend forward. Inhale and slowly return to a standing position, one vertebra after another. Roll shoulders to the back and then down.
Stand with feet at hip width. Raise arms to shoulder height and put one arm on top of the other. Twist to your right, return to the starting position, and repeat to your left. If you want a challenge, put your feet close together and spread your arms to each side, then twist.
Next, inhale as you gently bend forward from your hips with knees bent slightly. Straighten the arms in front at shoulder height. As you exhale, stand up while spreading your arms out to the sides.
Bend forward from the hips and roll shoulders back, then down. Your spine should be straight. Look at the floor and keep core engaged. Inhale, extend an arm forward, bring it back, and repeat with the other arm. To make it more challenging, extend both arms, return to starting position, and repeat.
Now that you know how easy it is to get moving, there’s no better time to start. Your body and brain will both thank you! 🙂