We all know that regular physical activity is important for our health. But as we age, it gets more and more difficult to stay active and do the things we love. Many seniors become inactive due to illness, disease or fear of injury. Whatever the reason, physical activity can be the key to living a healthy, independent life.
“A lot of older adults have issues with falls and staying safe while living independently,” says Sharon Johansen, physical therapist assistant at Des Moines University Physical Therapy Clinic. “That can happen for a lot of reasons: a loss of balance, inflexibility in their joints or weakness due to illness or inactivity. Exercise works on all those things.”
Physical activity offers various health benefits. It reduces your risk of falls and fractures by increasing bone density, muscle strength, flexibility and balance. It also helps you control your weight by building lean muscle mass and increasing metabolism, which naturally slows with age. Staying active is good for your mental health, too. Exercise produces endorphins in the brain, which boost your mood and enhance your psychological well-being. It can also help prevent memory loss, cognitive decline and dementia.
The recommended level of activity for older adults is two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity along with strength, flexibility and neuromotor training two to three days a week. You don’t have to run a 5k or lift heavy weights to keep fit; any activity that gets your heart rate up has great health benefits, even if it’s only for 10 minutes at a time.
“Do something every day, whether it’s going to walk around the mall or gardening or getting out with some friends,” advises Johansen. “A bicep curl is the same whether you do two pounds or 25 pounds. You can do the same type of exercises anyone else can do.”
“Pilates is a great exercise for older adults. It provides strengthening of the core muscles that support our bodies, flexibility and stretching for injury prevention and balance retraining,” says Kari Smith, D.P.T., Des Moines University Physical Therapy Clinic manager and Stott Pilates certified instructor. “It can also be relaxing and fun to exercise with a group.”
No matter what fitness routine you choose, Johansen also recommends incorporating functional exercises, such as wall slides to practice getting up out of a chair or squats for picking things up off the ground. These exercises combine strengthening, flexibility and balance to help you perform normal daily activities.
“Practice the things you can’t do so that you can be able to do them. You’ve got to use it in order to keep it,” she says. “It takes strength, flexibility, coordination, body awareness and balance to do that.”
Des Moines University’s Physical Therapy Clinic can help you stay active with exercise classes geared toward older adults. Classes meet weekly and are taught by DMU Physical Therapy clinicians.