Exercising regularly, every day if possible, is the single most important thing you can do for your health. In the short term, exercise helps to control appetite, boost mood, and improve sleep. In the long term, it reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, and many cancers.
Whether you were once much more physically active or have never been one to exercise regularly, now is a great time to start an exercise and fitness regimen. Getting and staying in shape is just as important for seniors as it is for younger people.
Why is exercise important for older people? Getting your heart rate up and challenging your muscles benefits virtually every system in your body and improves your physical and mental health in myriad ways. Physical activity helps maintain a healthy blood pressure, keeps harmful plaque from building up in your arteries, reduces inflammation, improves blood sugar levels, strengthens bones, and helps stave off depression. In addition, a regular exercise program can make your sex life better, lead to better quality sleep, reduce your risk of some cancers, and is linked to longer life.
Many older adults hesitate to get moving because they’re unfamiliar with the types of exercise and fitness that are effective and safe, and aren’t sure how much exercise they need to do. The good news is that any kind of movement is better than being sedentary, so there’s nothing wrong with starting small and working your way up to longer workouts. Your goal should be no less than 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, but if you can’t start at that level, work up to it (and then past it). While there are many dedicated forms of exercise and fitness for adults, you also want to stay physically active throughout the day by taking the stairs, doing yard work, and playing with your grandkids.
When it comes to exercise and fitness for seniors, most can begin without consulting a doctor—but there are exceptions. If you have a major health condition like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or lung disease, osteoprosis or a neurological disease, definitely talk to your doctor first. People with mobility issues such as poor balance or arthritis should also get advice from their doctor.
While there are endless forms of exercise, experts categorize physical activity into four broad types based on what each calls upon your body to do and how the movement benefits you.
Aerobic exercise is marked by an increased heart rate. Although most aerobic exercises require you to move your whole body, the main focus is on your heart and lungs (Aerobic exercise is often called “cardio” because it challenges and benefits your cardiovascular system). Activities like walking, swimming, dancing and cycling, if done at sufficient intensity, get you breathing faster and your heart working harder. Aerobic exercises burn fat, improve your mood, reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar.
Strength training, sometimes called resistance training, should be performed two to three times a week. Squats, lunges, push-ups and the exercises performed on resistance machines or using weights or bands help maintain and even build muscle mass and strength. Strength training also helps prevent falls, keep bones strong, lower blood sugar levels, and improve balance. Do a combination of both isometric and isotonic exercises. Isometric exercises, such as doing planks and holding leg lifts, are done without movement. They are great for maintaining strength and improving stability. Isotonic exercises require you to bear weight throughout a range of motion. Bicep curls, bench presses and sit-ups are all forms of isotonic exercise.
Stretching exercises keep your muscles and tendons flexible, preserve your posture, and improve mobility, especially as you age. Stretching can be done every day.
Balance exercises call on the various systems that help you stay upright and oriented, such as those of the inner ear, vision and muscles and joints. Tai chi and yoga are great forms of balance exercises that can help you avoid falls and stay independent well into your senior years.
A smartly designed exercise program will benefit your body and mind in innumerable ways.