Exercise and Aging

Debunking the myths

Exercise and Aging

Does getting older mean giving up exercise? Not so fast! Here's how to stay active for life.

Isn’t it time to stop exercising once we reach a certain age? Won’t we fall and injure ourselves, or end up with sore and achy muscles after lifting weights? In fact, maintaining an active lifestyle is essential to help us stay strong and prevent falls throughout our golden years.

Active aging

Lifting weights, running on the treadmill, hiking in the mountains, and kayaking: these activities are just a few of the things that 74-year-old West Vancouverite Bonnie Allen regularly enjoys. She not only likes exercising and hitting the gym on a regular basis, but also needs to do it.

“I’m addicted,” she says. “I feel so achy and out of sorts if I don’t move regularly.”

Allen discovered weightlifting 34 years ago and never looked back, even trying her hand at a bodybuilding competition at age 40. Allen is not alone in the gym where she now trains. There are numerous septuagenarians and even octogenarians who lift weights and do stationary cycling and treadmill walking most days of the week.

So what do these gym goers know that the rest of us don’t? Here are some common myths and misperceptions that we may believe about older people and exercising.

Myth 1: “I’m too old to start exercising.”

You may have said this while looking down at your cane, or after finding a new ache or pain in your knee after a short stroll. But what’s really holding you back?

It’s true that aging adults experience a decrease in lean muscle mass and bone mineral density. If you never exercise, however, you will lose even more bone density and may experience sarcopenia, which can be defined as the natural age-related loss of muscle mass, strength, and muscle function. One cause of sarcopenia is lack of exercise, and one solution for reducing the risk of sarcopenia is … you guessed it: exercise!

A recent study done on exercise and aging showed that after only a six-month period of regular resistance training, older people were able to improve their muscle strength by approximately 50 percent. These were regular individuals who didn’t perform strength training before, and started at a mean age of 68.

As well, this study showed that resistance training was not only slowing the seniors’ aging process, but also reversing it at the gene level—not too bad for people who might have thought they were too old to start an exercise program.

Myth 2: “Older people should rest and save their strength.”

With strength loss occurring after age 40 and continuing on a downward slope, it’s more important than ever to move more. With increased strength come other benefits such as the release of growth hormone, which promotes healthy muscle mass. The increased muscle mass you gain can help improve quality of life and extend independent living.

Myth 3: “Exercise increases the risk of injury or falling.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Regular physical activity is not only fun and healthy, but also safe for almost everyone. The health benefits outweigh the risk of injury.” Some of the diseases and conditions that exercise may help prevent are

  • arthritis
  • diabetes
  • osteoporosis
  • obesity
  • back pain

With the aging process, declining balance and flexibility may contribute to falls and broken bones, which can lead to disability and complications. Strength-training exercises can help prevent these accidents by improving balance and overall range of motion. For example, a New Zealand study showed that women 80 years of age and up reduced their risk of falls by 40 percent after engaging in some easy strength and balance exercises.

Myth 4: “Disability prevents people from exercising.”

Being disabled becomes a greater concern with age, especially if you’ve never been active and are reluctant to start.

Participants in a 16-year-long study looking at seniors and disability found that those who decreased their activity levels showed progression of disability as quickly as sedentary individuals. Disability was developed either because of exercise ceasing or because of conditions that caused the exercise to decrease, such as arthritis, neurological problems, or cardiovascular issues. Another long-term study found that vigorous exercise in seniors is related to a disability-free life, as well as disability postponement of eight to 12 years.

Even if you’re disabled, there are still many things you can do to engage in physical activity. Chair fitness classes are led with all of the participants seated, and you never have to stand up. Here are some simple chair exercises that you can also do at home:

  • knee raises
  • leg extensions
  • shoulder presses
  • bicep curls
  • triceps overhead press
  • shoulder circles
  • heel taps

As well, being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t hit the gym. Most community centres should have disability-friendly ramps or elevators, and many machines can be utilized without ever leaving your wheelchair.

Safety first!

Get clearance

Make sure to see your health practitioner before embarking on a new workout regimen. If you have a heart condition, arthritis, back pain, cancer, metabolic condition, respiratory condition, or other issue, your health care practitioner will need to sign off on your exercise plan.

Start slowly

It took this long to get started, so what’s the rush? Begin with simple exercises that you can do sitting on a machine. Start with 12 to 15 repetitions and two to three sets of each exercise.

Should you do it?

If you have specific health concerns, make sure you know which exercises are contraindicated. If you’re unsure, consider hiring a personal trainer who specializes in assisting your age group and fitness level to get you off to a safe start.

When?

Setting an exercise schedule is important to keep you on track with your goals. Look at your calendar to see which days and times are free. Mark them down and make those times a priority for your health!

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