According to Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publishing (July 2019), the average 65-year-old can expect to reach her 85th birthday, and the average 75-year-old will live to age 87. Although no one can be certain that we’ll be spared debilitating disorders that could rob us of our mobility, there’s no doubt that regular exercise will help improve our ability to function at almost any age or level of fitness.
If the muscle can move, use it! It may help you live longer and better!
During the 1970s, several studies of healthy older people indicated that strength, stamina, and flexibility drop significantly after age 55. These declines were once considered an inevitable consequence of aging. But a landmark study published in 1994 by Harvard and Tufts researchers showed that many functional losses could be reversed, even in the frailest and oldest women. Concurrently, researchers with the MacArthur Study of Aging in America, a 10-year investigation of healthy aging, were finding that people in their 70s and 80s could become more physically fit, even if they had never exercised before.
There is no single group of exercises for seniors, probably because there isn’t a fitness standard specifically for people over age 70. As the American Society of Geriatrics explains in its statement on screening tests for older people, “individuals age at different rates. There is considerable variation…even at an advanced age.” Regardless, it’s important to practice the four cornerstones of fitness: cardiovascular conditioning, strength, balance, and flexibility.
Whether someone has been sedentary all his or her life or become inactive because of injury or illness, programs like “Get Up and Go” or in-home physical therapy can help. Check with your health plan or senior center for programs offered by exercise professionals.
The heart, like other muscles, becomes deconditioned when a sedentary lifestyle reduces the demands we make on it. As a result, its contractions become weaker and it pumps less blood with each beat. But some cardiovascular loss can be reversed through regular exercise.
Walking, cycling, swimming, and other aerobic exercises boost energy and endurance by increasing cardiovascular capacity. They also reduce the risk of developing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and depression. Studies have shown that 30 minutes of daily moderate cardiovascular exercise, even in 10-minute increments, can increase fitness and substantially reduce disease risk. Walking is one of the best aerobic exercises because it also helps maintain bone. Start with 10-minute sessions, walking at the fastest pace that allows one to sustain a conversation.
Maintaining strength is one of the most important ways to ensure that older adults will retain their independence. To build muscle, the exercises must be challenging, but they shouldn’t be stressful. The idea is to lift a weight comfortably for eight repetitions and try to keep going until fifteen repetitions. Take three seconds to lift the weight; hold it for one second; then take another three seconds to lower it. Breathe in as when lifting the weight and out as it is lowered. Rest, then do a second set of repetitions. If the first set was too easy–being able to life more than fifteen repetitions– try adding another pound. Take a day off between sessions for each muscle group or exercise upper body one day and lower body the next.
Loss of flexibility can be a mere annoyance or a real impediment, affecting one’s ability to back into a parking spot or even to trim their toenails. Stretching should only be performed when muscles are warm; add in fifteen minutes of stretches at the end of an aerobic or weightlifting session. Stretching shouldn’t hurt; at most, there should be a slight tugging or pulling. Repeat each stretch three to five times. As individuals gain flexibility, people find themselves stretching farther and farther each session.
If a loved one has taken a couple of tumbles recently or just feel unsteady on their feet, suggest to them that they may want to start with balance exercises, even before beginning an aerobic program. All someone needs is a pair of comfortable, low-heeled shoes. Because balance exercises don’t stress muscles, they can be performed as often as desired.