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Fitness for Seniors

Exercise is essential for keeping seniors well, physically and emotionally.

By Heather Grant, MD, FACP, WCC, CWS
Medical Director and Attending Physician, CenterLight Healthcare Amityville
As seen in Advance for Long Term Care Management

You can't open a newspaper, magazine or watch the nightly news today without hearing or reading about the alarming increase in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure or cancer.

To combat this epidemic, at CenterLight Healthcare in Amityville, N.Y., a member of the CenterLight Health System, we have incorporated diversified exercise into our therapeutic recreation program. When a group of residents participates in a physical exercise that is accompanied by music, everyone seems to enjoy themselves and have fun. Group exercise is great for socializing and it helps decrease the risk of isolation and depression.

According to an article in the American Academy of Family Physicians, "lack of physical activity contributes to many chronic diseases that occur in older adults, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes mellitus, lung disease, Alzheimer's disease, hypertension, and cancer."1

However, studies have proven that a regular exercise program can delay or prevent these illnesses. At CenterLight Healthcare, we have implemented a four-pronged exercise program for our members. This program includes aerobic exercises, muscle strengthening exercises, flexibility and balance exercises. Prior to beginning any exercise program, we perform an in-depth evaluation to determine each resident's fitness level. Programs are customized for each individual and participants are regularly monitored.

Benefits of Exercise

As we in the health care field know, exercising regularly can have an enormous impact on improving the quality and enjoyment of life for aging adults. Benefits range from improved cardiovascular health, cognitive function and short-term memory, to decreased hip and vertebral fractures as well as decreased rates of depression. Please note that it's important to consult a physician before starting any exercise program.

Aerobic Exercises. Aerobic exercise refers to the use of oxygen in the body's metabolic process. While swimming, cycling and jogging are excellent examples of aerobic exercises, walking seems to be preferred by most seniors, because it results in less muscle soreness and forces the body to dip into its stored sugar and fat supplies. When walking at a comfortable to brisk pace, seniors should still be able to speak in full sentences, even though they may be breathing hard. This is referred to as the "talk test," and helps to determine if seniors are reaping the full benefit of the exercise. It is recommended that seniors should engage in moderate-intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 30 minutes, five days per week or, vigorous-intensity aerobics for a minimum of 20 minutes for three days each week. Walkers need to maintain an elevated heart rate for at least 20 minutes. Aerobic exercising improves the cardiovascular and circulatory systems, and builds endurance.

Muscle Strengthening. As we age, our muscle mass decreases (a condition called sarcopenia) and can lead to weakness and frailty. Sarcopenia occurs when there is an absence of exercise. The primary way to manage sarcopenia is through a graded exercise program. Muscle strengthening exercises include weight-bearing calisthenics, a progressive weight training program such as lifting dumbbells, working out on weight machines, or simply engaging in everyday activities, such as carrying groceries or digging in the garden. Seniors should participate in muscle strengthening exercises that use a major muscle group on two non-consecutive days a week. A doctor or rehabilitation therapist can recommend the number of repetitions that is optimal for each individual. Exercises such as rubber band resistance training will help to maintain or increase strength and endurance.

Flexibility. The third component of our program consists of activities to improve flexibility in order to maintain a range of motion. Stretching will also help rehabilitate injuries and decrease soreness that may occur during aerobic and strengthening exercises. Seniors should stretch two days each week for at least 10 minutes per day on those days that they will be engaged in aerobic and strengthening exercises. It's best to stretch slowly and gently, breathing into the stretch to avoid muscle tension, then relaxing and holding the stretch for 10-30 seconds. If he or she feels pain, the individual should ease up on the stretch.

Balance. According to an article in US News & World Report last year, one in three people over 65 will fall each year doing their daily activities.2 And for seniors, that often translates into hip or wrist fractures. One analysis of balance studies found that muscle strengthening and balance re-training programs can decrease the risk of falls by 45 percent.2 Balance exercises can range from dancing to yoga or tai chi to walking a straight line with arms at the side. At CenterLight Healthcare, we employ all of these exercises and tailor them to each individual's needs. From decreasing the risk of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure to lifting spirits and improving overall health and well being, exercise is an essential component in keeping seniors vibrant. By integrating aerobics as well as muscle strengthening, flexibility and balance exercises into a regular physical fitness regime, seniors can feel better about themselves, stay active and independent, and live longer and healthier lives.

References

1. Elsawy B, Higgins KE. Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults. American Academy of Family Physicians Jan. 1, 2010; 81(1)
2. Hobson K. A 10-Week Plan for (Finally) Getting Fit. U.S. News & World Report Feb. 7, 2010, p. 47

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