Exercise vital as we get older
Q: ‘‘I am an 81-year-old man. I am getting slower and walking is becoming difficult. I currently lift some milk bottles filled with water to strengthen my arms. Are there other forms of exercise I should do to help my fitness?’’ – Gerald. A: Thanks for the question, Gerald – the short answer is, yes absolutely! There are lots of other types of exercise that you could try, and keeping as active as you possibly can is definitely going to optimise your health and wellbeing for the future.
I like to think getting older has plenty of ‘‘ups’’, but it also definitely brings with it an increased risk of health problems.
There are the obvious medical issues such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, strokes, dementia, Parkinsons disease, lung problems and a multitude of others. But there are also the lesser-talked about problems associated with ageing including higher rates of depression, anxiety, memory loss, isolation, and loneliness. Combine these with the ‘‘general slowing down’’ that comes with advancing years and it is easy to see why many people reduce the amount of exercise they do as they age.
However, research shows that you should be doing the opposite to optimise your health and mental wellbeing – 150 minutes of exercise a week, spread over several days, is proven to reduce your risk of not only the physical problems listed above, but also reduce stress and depression, improve mobility and balance, reduce your likelihood of falls, and improve your cognitive function.
Older people who exercise at this level are likely to lead more independent, longer, and better quality lives.
This advice needs to be tailored to every individual. So it is important to talk through any fitness ideas you have with either your doctor, a physiotherapist, or a personal trainer – they will let you know what forms of activity will benefit you most, be achievable and not aggravate any underlying health issues you may have.
Without giving specific advice, Gerald, here are some things to think about that you may find helpful:
It has been shown that even 10 minutes of moderate intensity exercise has benefits for heart and lungs; so breaking down the 150 minutes per week into small achievable chunks might make it seem more manageable.
It is important that you try to incorporate the four types of exercise into your week – endurance or aerobic exercise (such as walking, jogging, dancing, playing tennis); strength training (such as lifting weights or using stretchy ‘‘resistance bands’’); balance to help your stability and reduce your risk of falls; and stretching to improve flexibility.
If you have stiff or sore joints, water-based exercise can be a wonderful way to keep fit, improve mobility, and reduce pain levels. Swimming, aqua jogging, wateraerobics, or Zumba are all worth a go, and most pools will offer reduced rates for ‘‘seniors’’. If you are more courageous than me, get in the ocean.
Consider a stationary bike. It will keep your joints moving, give you a cardio workout and you don’t need to worry about the weather! You can put an old bike, minus its front wheel, on a stand, rather than investing in any fancy gym equipment.
Yoga and tai chi tend to be the forms of exercise I recommend most for older people. They are often slightly ‘‘gentler’’ so may not seem as daunting if you are starting out, but as they incorporate stretching, flexibility, strength, and balance work, they are an incredibly powerful way to improve mobility and reduce your risk of falls. Patients who regularly do tai chi or yoga report benefits in lung function, as well as better sleep, more positive mood, and reduced stress levels. If you can’t locate a class in your neighbourhood, check out the ACC website (acc.co.nz ) , ask at your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau, or browse for a DVD at the library. Whatever type of exercises you end up trying, Gerald, I would encourage you to either join a local class or group, or enlist a friend who is keen to give it a go as well. It will offer you new social opportunities and you are more likely to succeed with company than on your own. Good luck!
Dr Cathy Stephenson is a GP and medical examiner.