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.

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