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Seniors: It’s never too late to start exercising

May 25, 2016 | UCI Health
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Older adults have certainly earned the right to rest and relax in their golden years. But that doesn't mean sitting in a rocking chair in front of the television day in and day out.

Health experts are adamant that physical activity should be part of everyone's life — no matter your age or health status. 

However, it can be daunting for people ages 65 and older to start a fitness program. Many seniors wonder if it's simply too late to start exercising.

Move more, feel better

The answer is no, says Dr. Katayoun Khalighi, a geriatrician with the UCI Health SeniorHealth Center and assistant clinical professor.

"We see older adults as people who are more sedentary and less active for a variety of reasons, whether it's because of arthritis or other ailments," he says. "But people need to be aware that the more they move, the better their heart, lungs, mind and body are going to work."

Older adults reap just as many benefits from exercise as younger people, she says. Aging involves the gradual loss of muscle mass. But by staying active, people can retain more muscle. That can make a significant difference in maintaining independence as you age.

"Being independent means so many things," Khalighi says. "It's about doing all of the things you're used to doing: driving, cooking meals and the activities of daily life. It's also about keeping your mind sharp and preventing depression."

For adults, a regimen of physical activity helps:

  • Prevent eight types of cancer (bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, stomach and lung)
  • Prevent heart disease
  • Prevent stroke
  • Prevent high blood pressure
  • Prevent type 2 diabetes
  • Prevent depression
  • Improve bone health
  • Improve physical function
  • Improve quality of life
  • Reduce risk of dementia
  • Reduce all-cause mortality

For older adults, physical activity lowers the risk of falls and injuries from falls.

Guidelines for activity

The first key guideline for adults is to move more and sit less. This recommendation is based on new evidence that shows a strong relationship between increase sedentary behavior and increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and all-cause mortality.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you're 65 years of age or older, are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions, you should follow one of these guidelines:

  • Two and a half hours (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders, and arms), or
  • One hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as jogging or running) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week, or
  • An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week

Exercising with chronic conditions

When older adults can't do the recommended 150 minutes of moderate intensite aerobic activity because of chronic conditions, they should be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow.

Older adults should increase their amount of physical activity gradually. It can take months for those with low fitness to gradually meet their activity goals.

To reduce risk of injury while exercising, it is important to increase the amount of physical activity gradually over a period of weeks to months.

For example, an inactive person could start with a walking program consisting of 5 minutes of slow walking several times each day, 5 to 6 days a week. The length of time could then gradually be increased to 10 minutes per session, three times a day, and the walking speed could be increased slowly.

SilverSneakers and other programs

"Everyone can find somewhere to start," Khalighi says. "The thing that is actually a barrier for older adults is that they don't know what kinds of resources are available in the community."

For example, she says, many senior centers have fitness classes, and lots of gyms, pools and aquatic centers have programs tailored to seniors. At the UCI Health SeniorHealth Center, a social worker keeps tabs on community resources to recommend to patients.

Moreover, one out of five people age 65 and older are eligible for the SilverSneakers fitness benefit. If you’re a group retiree or part of a Medicare health plan, you may have a SilverSneakers membership that entitles you to access a gym or fitness program at no cost.

Older adults with physical limitations or chronic health problems may need to consult a doctor or physical therapist when they begin an exercise program, Khalighi says. According to the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, 50 percent of adults with disability get no aerobic physical activity even though regular exercise can provide important health benefits.

Staying fit at home

"For my patients who have difficulty with balance or are prone to falls, I recommend going to a physical therapist who can teach them different home-based exercises," she says. "For people who don't want to go to the physical therapist, I advise them to start exercising by using their biggest muscles. Often that means using their legs. Hold on to a chair or table to balance, then squat and stand up. That strengthens the core."

Additional resources are available from the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.

Khalighi says she's always impressed by the positive results seen in older adults who begin exercising.

"I've seen patients who are bed-bound or wheelchair-bound become mobile again and engaged in the community again," she says. "It's incredible. Sometimes the issue is that they've had an injury or illness and no one has ever tried to get them active again. Find out what your limits are, and see what kinds of gains you can make."

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