Regular exercise and physical activity are important to the physical and mental health of almost everyone, including older adults. Being physically active can help you continue to do the things you enjoy, stay independent as you age and produce long-term health benefits. Health experts agree that older adults should be active every day to maintain optimal health.
Physical activities are activities that get your body moving such as gardening, walking and/or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Exercise is a form of physical activity that is specifically planned or structured such as weight training or an aerobics class. Physical activity and exercise are both important and can help improve your ability to do the everyday activities you enjoy.
Physical activity can do a number of things for people of all ages but may be especially helpful to older adults. In addition to helping mood and increasing social interaction, physical activity may help prevent, delay or improve conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Physical activity also helps strengthen muscles and bones which have a tendency to weaken as the body ages.
One of the great things about physical activity is that there are so many ways to be active. For example, you can be active in short spurts throughout the day, or you can set aside specific times of the day on specific days of the week to exercise. Many physical activities are free or low cost and do not require special equipment.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends the following when considering exercise and/or physical activity:
· Stretch. Before you start any exercise and after you complete any exercise, you will want to stretch your muscles. This will help loosen and warm your muscles in addition to helping prevent injury and cramping. It is also important to remember that you may or may not be thirsty during or after exercise; however, your body will need plenty of water, especially after you are finished exercising.
· 30 minutes. The NIA suggests that you should do something to increase your heart and breathing rate for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. The 30 minutes do not have to be all at once, you could do three 10-minute exercises. A good rule of thumb to see if you are doing enough is to try to talk during exercise: if you cannot talk at all, you are exercising too hard; if you can talk without any trouble, you are not exercising hard enough.
· Use your muscles. Every time you move a part of your body, you are using a muscle. When those muscles are not used because of a lack of physical activity they weaken. If your muscles get too weak, you may not be able to walk or even get up from a seated position. In addition, strong muscles help reinforce your bones, making it less likely that you will fall. Whatever exercise you do should include something that uses your muscles, whether you are walking laps or raking leaves in the front yard.
· Improve your balance. In addition to strengthening your muscles, it is also very important to strengthen your sense of balance. After all, many falls are caused by loss of balance. To do this, try standing on one foot, holding onto a chair for support if you are unable to do this task alone. Also, try standing from a seated position without using your hands or arms. Be very careful when trying these activities and have someone else present when you are doing them.
Your health provider will be a key player in your exercise routine. Please remember to consult him or her before beginning any type of physical activity. You will want to discuss with him or her how your personal health condition may be affected by exercise. Also, you will want to start slowly with any type of exercise routine. A good adage to remember is “start low and go slow.” Doing too much, too soon may seriously injure your body.
Some safety recommendations from the American College of Sports Medicine include:
· Do not hold your breath while straining.
· Use safety equipment to prevent injury. This may mean a helmet for bike riding or proper shoes for walking or running.
· Drink plenty of liquids unless specifically advised otherwise by your health provider.
· Bend from the hips, not from the waist.
Exercise may cause soreness or a little discomfort but should never cause pain.
Written by Andrew Crocker, Texas AgriLIfe Specialist—Gerontology.