There are many physiological aspects of aging, such as weight gain, body composition changes and body fat increases. The good news is that exercise can slow down these changes.
After the age of 45, we lose 6.6 lbs of muscle mass per decade. This includes loss of fast-twitch muscles, reduced strength and power, and loss of anti-gravity muscles. A reduction in the size of muscle fibers, as well as the number of fibers and motor units, makes muscles unable to respond as quickly. Tendons are stiffer, less pliable and unable to take stresses on the joints as they once could.
According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults, “To achieve health benefits and improve functional abilities, adults aged 65 years and older should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.” Muscle and bone strengthening activities, at least two days per week, are also beneficial.
Being active for at least 150 minutes per week can help reduce the risk of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as premature death. Such regular activity also helps to maintain functional independence and mobility, improve fitness, improve or maintain body weight, and maintain bone health and mental agility.
The guidelines for older adults recommend increased endurance activities four to seven days a week, increased flexibility activities daily, and increased strength and balance activities two to four days a week.
A number of issues can make older adults hesitant to start – or continue – exercising. Fear is a huge factor, and rightfully so. There is the fear of falling as many older people experience gait changes, a decrease in balance, poor posture, decrease in leg strength and joint mobility, lower activity levels and general instability.
Some powerful psychological stresses can also challenge self-image and self-esteem. Fear of growing old and chronically ill, fear of becoming a burden, fear of financial challenges, fear of change, fear of loss of independence, and fear of death. A more active lifestyle can help to manage many of these fears.
How? An active lifestyle can help older adults relax and sleep better, lower stress and anxiety levels, and enhance overall mood and emotional state. Activity can also postpone the decrease in central nervous system function and reaction time. It can postpone the decrease in motor skills and generate an overall better sense of well-being.
On the social side, being active makes older adults feel empowered. Regular programs promote interaction with other people and create a healthy, social environment as new friendships are formed and old ones are strengthened.
Of course, many conditions can challenge older adults as they strive to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. Arthritis, for example, is a common condition involving joint inflammation. There are 406 joints in the body, 292 of which are susceptible to arthritis! The resulting redness, heat and pain can deter sufferers from pursuing various activities, especially when we consider that one pound of weight is equal to four pounds of pressure on the knees.
Although there are times when exercise is not recommended for arthritis sufferers, there are also many benefits in terms of increasing range of movement, water exercise, stretching and cross training. These participants will need a longer warm-up, as it is harder for them to get going. They also benefit from shorter exercise duration, accumulating short sessions throughout the day. They should avoid high repetitions and high resistance.
This is one example of programming for a condition, and precautions and benefits may differ between various conditions. With proper monitoring, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and diabetes can also benefit from exercise and activity.
The overriding factor in the lives of older adults is maintaining independence.
A qualified trainer with a specialty in older adult fitness can provide individualized and highly specific training.
We all age differently. Older adults who still work and/or already practise a fitness regime may require very few modifications. At the same time, active adults unaccustomed to exercising in a formal setting may need specific programming.
On the other hand, inactive older adults may suffer from conditions related to aging and a sedentary lifestyle. They are usually getting little exercise and may need several modifications when they embark on a program. Specialist trainers can work with them on modifications to help reduce the risk of injury. They can also advise when to stop exercise and consult a physician, if necessary.
Here are some recommendations older adults should consider before starting an activity program. First, consult your physician for a check-up. Then make a list of activities you would like to try, set short- and long-term goals, make them realistic and reward yourself when you achieve them.
Start slowly and treat exercise sessions as appointments to be kept. Check out the facility you want to join, including its accessibility, and check your options. For example, will there be a seated option in the class you want to attend?
Check out the staff and their credentials, and seek those with specific experience working with older adults. As an investment in your health, you might consider hiring a specialist trainer who can put you on a well-rounded program or joining a group program with professional older adult instruction.
Find ways to fit in additional exercise, such as parking further away and using the stairs, depending on your level of mobility. Create a support network to ensure family and friends understand how important your healthy lifestyle is to you.
Finally, as obvious as it may seem, invest in the right clothing, including shoes.
Beyond the physical benefits, active older adults meet new people, feel more relaxed, sleep better and are generally happier. The Can-Fit-Pro program suggests the benefits of regular physical activity are many and varied: continued independent living; better physical and mental health; improved quality of life; more energy; the ability to move with fewer aches and pains; better posture and balance; improved self-esteem; weight maintenance; stronger muscles and bones; more relaxation and less stress.
Being active reduces the risk of heart disease, falls and injuries, obesity, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death.
So go ahead! What have you got to lose? Being active is very safe for most people. However, regardless of age, start slowly and build up gradually. Listen to your body, and respect it!
Lori Ferren is Fitness Director at Club Markham Fitness, Squash, Swim at the Hilton Toronto/Markham Suites Conference Centre and Spa. Her Can-Fit Pro certifications include FIS (Fitness Instructor Specialist), PTS (Personal Training Specialist) and OAS (Older Adult Specialist). Tel: 905 470 2400, ext 2810. www.clubmarkham.ca; torontomarkham.hilton.com.