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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Exercise And The Elderly

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You are never too old to reap the rewards of regular physical activity. It is well established that exercise can assist in lowering weight. There is now mounting evidence that muscle-strengthening exercises such as tai chi or structured physical therapy can reduce the risk of falling and fracturing bones, improve the ability to live independently and reduce depression.

In one study, moderate exercise reduced pain and disability in senior adults with knee osteoarthritis. It has also been shown that aerobic exercise increased the amount of sleep senior adults got each night and reduced the time it took to fall asleep. Other research has confirmed that exercise benefits people with coronary artery disease, diabetes and hypertension.

If you are not doing any exercise at all right now, you might try to accumulate at least 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity aerobic activity on most, if not all, days of the weeks. Such activities include walking, climbing the stairs (instead of taking the elevator), gardening, housecleaning and dancing. Thirty minutes of physical activity may also come from planned exercise such as jogging, playing tennis, swimming, bicycling or taking an aerobics or water aerobics class.

Strength training should also be an integral part of every exercise program. Exercises, such as lifting weights, even once or twice a week, can keep you from losing muscle, can strengthen your bones and can protect your knees and other joints. It can also lessen arthritis pain and stiffness and help you lose weight.

As you become older, it is important to maintain flexibility, or the ability to move a joint through the full range of motion. Proper flexibility will help you to continue functioning at home, work and socially. Research suggests that most of the flexibility that is lost through aging is caused by inactivity or lack of movement. A daily stretching routine may help improve how you feel and function; decrease the possibility of joint injuries, muscle strains or sprains; help maintain strength; improve posture; and relieve muscle soreness.

You should strive for a balanced physical activity program that combines aerobic exercise, strengthening and stretching. If you are just getting started, it's important to begin any exercise program slowly and gradually increase to more days or longer periods of time. In addition, older individuals should check with their doctor before beginning any exercise program to determine cardiac risk and protect themselves from injury.

Many health clubs and community centers offer exercise programs designed just for senior adults — including walking, water aerobics, low-impact aerobics, senior step classes, weight-lifting and stretching programs, yoga, and dancing. Ask if you can try out the exercise program or take a class to see if you like it. Most reputable facilities will be happy to accommodate you.

Each bout of exercise needs to be prefaced by gentle stretching and followed by a cool down. Slow graded progress is the rule, while keeping track new symptoms that could indicate an injury or the appearance of cardiovascular problems.

Last updated November 2, 2007




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