Fitness: Elixir for the AgesEn Español (Spanish Version)
Growing older is no picnic…but a regular fitness routine can jump start your memory, your metabolism, and your state of mind.
"Exercise contributes to the physical and psychological well-being that defines healthy aging," says Robert Mazzeo, PhD, of the American College of Sports Medicine.
The aging process brings a natural decline in strength caused by the loss of muscle tissue. This promotes frailty and the impaired ability to move about with ease, which is often associated with aging. Decreased strength means less energy to do everyday activities, such as household chores, grocery shopping, and climbing stairs.
Now for the good news! Regular, moderate physical activity has been shown to lower the risk of or improve the symptoms of many chronic diseases. Exercise helps build muscle and bone strength and improves balance and flexibility—all of which can protect your body from falls that can cause debilitating fractures
. Exercise may also boost the immune system to help fight off colds
, control arthritic symptoms such as joint swelling and pain, improve mood and self-confidence, and enhance a deeper sleep.
In a study of postmenopausal women at the Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston, Miriam Nelson, PhD, found that the women who participated in a strength-training program for one year reversed some aspects of aging by 15 to 20 years. The women increased their strength and bone mass, and benefited from a trimmer body, which was a result of well-toned muscles. One of the study's most interesting side effects was that the women became more active overall, with more energy and self-confidence to try out new activities such as dancing, bicycling, and even rollerblading!
Even the frailest elderly people benefit from exercise. Maria Fiatarone, MD, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, placed 100 nursing home residents ranging in age from 72 to 98 years old on a 10-week strength-training regimen. Most of the residents in the study depended on canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. By the end of the program, not only did they increase their muscle size and strength, but they also moved about with greater ease, even improving their ability to climb stairs—all of which greatly boosted their morale.
Anyone, at any age and with almost any condition (with some exceptions), can be physically active to some degree. Before starting an exercise program, first talk to your doctor
. This is especially important if you:
- Are older
- Have a chronic disease
- Are taking medicine
- Are overweight
- Have not exercised regularly in the past few years
Your doctor may have suggestions for an exercise regimen tailored to your particular needs. In some cases, you may be referred to a physical therapist or certified fitness trainer.
Once you have approval from your doctor, what should you aim for? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these exercise guidelines to gain health benefits:
- Throughout the week, aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (eg, walking briskly). In addition, do strength-training exercises to work the muscles in your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, and arms. Strength training should be done two or more times per week.
- Or, aim for 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercises (eg, jogging, running) throughout the week. Also, do the strength-training exercises.
- Or, do a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercises, along with strength training.
To gain even more health benefits, the CDC recommends these weekly goals:
- 300 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise along with two (or more) days of strength training
- Or, 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise and strength training
- Or, a combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercises and strength-training
Remember that it is okay if you exercise for just 10 minutes at a time!
- Warm up
—Warm up for at least five minutes. Light activity, such as
while gently swinging your arms, circulates blood to warm up your muscles. Jumping too quickly into vigorous exercise can shock and injure the muscles.
- Aerobic exercise
—Include aerobic activities, such as walking,
jogging, bicycling, and dancing most days of the week. These strengthen your heart and lungs by increasing your heart rate and breathing and improve the circulation of blood and oxygen throughout the body. Walking is one of the easiest and most convenient aerobic activities.
If you are just beginning to exercise, start with five minutes daily, adding a few minutes each week to reach your desired goal. Daily activities count! Walk a few blocks instead driving or skip the elevator and use stairs.
- Strength training
—Strength training with hand and ankle weights, resistance bands, or gym equipment is vital for maintaining muscle and bone strength. Bowling, hiking, and tennis are other strength-building activities. Because muscles need a day or two to rest and repair, include these activities only 2-3 times weekly.
—Flexibility declines with age but can be regained with consistent stretching exercises.
alleviates joint stiffness, reduces stress, and may prevent falls.
is an excellent activity that incorporates various stretching and balancing poses to keep the body limber. Contact your local YMCA or Council on Aging to find inexpensive yoga classes designed for older adults.
- Cool down—Finally, slow your pace for a cool-down period of at least 5-10 minutes to gradually bring your heart rate back to normal.
Remember that growing older is inevitable—feeling old is not. Keeping active at any age reaps everlasting rewards that will allow you to enjoy life to its fullest.
National Institute on Aging
Public Health Agency of Canada
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Last Reviewed August 2011