According to the American College of Sports Medicine, by the year 2030, the number of individuals in the United States 65 years and over will reach 70 million, and people 85 years and older will be the fastest growing segment of the population. Some of you may already be there, while others may be approaching. But whatever your age, exercise can help.
Muscle mass decreases as we age. Beginning in the fourth decade of life, adults lose 3%-5% of muscle mass per decade, and the decline increases to 1%-2% per year after age 50. Muscle keeps us strong, it burns calories and helps us maintain our weight, and it contributes to balance and bone strength. Without it, we can lose our independence and our mobility. The good news is that muscle mass can increase at any age in response to exercise.
You guessed it. It decreases. The good news is that some studies, but not all, show improvements in function when individuals engage in exercise programs that involve stretching exercises. Unfortunately, the studies on flexibility in the aging population aren’t as complete as they are for studies of strength and endurance, but the studies do suggest that significant improvements in the range of motion of various joints (neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle) can occur when stretching exercises are prescribed.
Balance decreases as we age, and importantly, falling is a major problem as a result. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of every three Americans over the age of 65 falls each year, and among individuals 65-84, falls account for 87% of all fractures and are the second leading cause of spinal cord and brain injury. The good news is that physical activity can improve balance and reduce the risk of falling.
One important conclusion of a research study suggests that it is important to select balance-training exercises that are specific to activities that you do during the day. For instance, you might want to do balance exercises on one leg that mimic the act of walking if you are unsteady while you walk (when you walk, one leg is in the air). Tai chi is excellent for this because it involves slow, coordinated movements, and particularly so since you lift one leg frequently while doing it.
Bones tend to decrease in density as we age, and for some individuals, it can lead to osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease of low bone density and can lead to an increased risk of fracture. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, osteoporosis and low bone mass affect 44 million men and women ages 50 and older in the United States, or 55% of the people 50 years of age and older.
The American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recently published guidelines for physical activity in older adults. Here is a summary of the recommendations.
Aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, dancing, biking, swimming, etc.): To promote and maintain health, older adults need moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes five days each week or vigorous intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes three days each week. (Moderate intensity is when you feel “warm and slightly out of breath,” and vigorous is when you feel “out of breath and sweaty.”)
Resistance exercise (weight lifting, calisthenics): To promote and maintain health and physical independence, older adults will benefit from performing activities that maintain or increase muscular strength and endurance for a minimum of two days each week. It is recommended that eight to 10 exercises be performed on two or more nonconsecutive days per week using the major muscle groups.
Flexibility exercise: To maintain the flexibility necessary for regular physical activity and daily life, older adults should perform activities that maintain or increase flexibility at least two days each week for at least 10 minutes each day.
Balance exercise: To reduce risk of injury from falls, older adults with substantial risk of falls (for example, with frequent falls or mobility problems) should perform exercises that maintain or improve balance.
There’s no need to try and make up for years of inactivity overnight. In fact, you could get injured or burn out by doing that. Instead, start slowly and build up gradually. If that means starting with just five minutes of walking, then that’s what you ought to do. In fact, one plan recommend for getting started is the five-minutes-out, five-minutes-back plan. Just like it sounds, you walk out for five minutes, turn around, and walk back. That’s it…10 minutes of walking, and off you go about your day. If you feel ambitious, you can do seven and a half or even 10 minutes out and back, and add some stretching when you finish if you like. One of the best ways to get motivated and stay that way is to set goals. It is suggest that you set a weekly exercise plan, starting today for the week coming up. Write down what day(s) of the week, what time of day, minutes of activity, and the activity that you’ll do. Be as specific and realistic as possible, and remember that it’s not how much you do when you get started but that you simply get started. Keep setting and reviewing your goals weekly for at least three months. That way you’ll be sure to stay on track and build exercise into your life as a habit.
For aerobic exercise: Walking, dancing (when’s the last time you took a ballroom-dancing class?), biking, and swimming are all good options. You can also try exercise videos.
For resistance exercise: You don’t need to pump iron in a gym to do resistance exercise. Of course, if you want to go to the gym, it wouldn’t be discouraged. But if you prefer to do it at home, you can. It is recommended to use exercise tubing if you’re looking for a simple but effective way to do resistance exercise at home. Exercise tubing is inexpensive and versatile (you can do lots of exercises with them) and a great way to get started with resistance exercise.