Exercise for Seniors: Facts, Benefits and Safety
Operating an adult fitness camp, we meet people of all ages and from all walks of life.
There are young business professionals looking to correct unhealthy habits and start down a better path. People in their 20’s and 30’s working to avoid potential health problems. Fitness enthusiasts come here to train for events or break out of plateaus. Some are from a few hours away – others come to us from across the world.
We also see many clients in their 40’s and 50’s. Some come to Weight Crafters for the benefits of a fitness vacation, getting away from hectic lives and careers while taking some much-needed time to recover mentally and rebuild physically. Others have experienced a medical crisis that awakened them to the need to change their lifestyle, or were recommended our program by a doctor or other medical professional.
And then there are those who come to us in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. This group frequently questions whether fitness camp is right for them. Will it be safe? Some have had medical work done in the past and fear inflaming old injuries. Will they fit in? Many expect us to have a “cut-off” or age limit. I’ve spoken with more than a few people in their mid 80’s who want to feel younger and more energetic, but are afraid of the exercise routine, or simply don’t know if it’s possible to get in shape at their age.
Myths and Facts about Fitness and Aging
If you’re over 50, staying active and maintaining a fitness routine can often land on the back burner. Family concerns, career decisions and much more tend to take center stage – but if you want to live a long and productive life, staying active should always stay at the top of your list. This is why we set up True Fire Silver, our advanced senior fitness and weight loss program.
Myth: Exercise is too dangerous at my age. I might fall or hurt myself.
Fact: Regular exercise will help to prevent these kinds of injuries. By increasing your strength and stamina, you are equipping your body to better handle all kinds of daily tasks. A good fitness routine will also help you retain bone mass, as well as improve balance, coordination and range of motion. This effectively helps you avoid accidents, equips your body to better cope with them if they do happen, and improves your resilience and speed of recovery.
Myth: My body isn’t what it once was, and trying to exercise is too frustrating / not worth it.
Fact: While it’s true that our bodies decline as we age, exercising and staying active is our most powerful weapon against this. Hormone changes, muscle mass, metabolism and bone density all contribute to lowered physical performance as we grow older. These biological changes are inevitable – but their effects pale in comparison to living a sedentary lifestyle. We have seen 80-year-olds at Weight Crafters filled with youthful energy and vigor because they have maintained active lifestyles – and 35-year-olds who could not keep up with them because they did not. The secret to feeling young is staying active. Don’t believe me? Ask Olga Kotelko (pictured above.)
Myth: My body hurts too much already. I’m too weak and tired, or have constant aches and pains that will just get worse.
Fact: All of those things will certainly get worse if you don’t get up and get active – whereas regular activity and exercise can slow or even reverse these symptoms. If you feel weak and worn out, starting a fitness routine may seem daunting – but a few weeks into it you’ll feel more strength, confidence and energy than you ever expected. If you have joint pain, remember that exercise improves the way your body moves, and low-impact activities that build muscle will help you reduce the stress on your joints rather than increasing it.
Physical and Mental Benefits of Exercise for Older Adults
Increased metabolism and weight control.
Exercise helps to build muscle mass and increase metabolism regardless of age. As we get older however, metabolism tends to slow naturally, often causing unhealthy weight gain. Staying active helps to counter this, both by stimulating increased calorie burn and by building / maintaining the lean muscle needed to burn more calories.
Improved confidence and mood.
Improved physical conditioning boosts self-esteem and inspires confidence. Additionally, during brisk exercise the body releases endorphins that interact with the pleasure centers of the brain. The effects can vary from a mild “good feeling” to what is called a “runner’s high” – and more importantly, studies have shown that this effect is a powerful antidepressant.
Reduces the risk of diseases and chronic illness common to seniors.
Exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight and diet have been shown to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. The reasons vary depending on the illness, or in some cases are still unclear. What we do know is that staying active and fit improves digestion, blood pressure and circulation, immune response and bone density. Strength training has also been shown to improve the symptoms of arthritis.
Improves mobility, range of motion, balance and coordination.
Our bodies adapt to our daily activities. This means maintaining strength, muscle and flexibility for certain kinds of tasks and motions, while letting other muscle groups shrink and joints set. As we age, these specializations become more evident in the forms of reduced flexibility and difficulty performing uncommon tasks. We even grow shorter as we age and our bodies settle. Exercise works directly against this process, helping to rebuild lost strength, increase flexibility, improve range of motion, and improve coordination. Improved balance and reflexes also help to prevent injuries – both during exercise, and in daily life.
Improved brain function and mental acuity.
Most people are surprised to learn that our brains consume up to 20% of the calories we burn each day. Even more are surprised to discover that physical exercise has more effect on brain health than mental exercises like puzzles or chess. Vigorous exercise improves neurotransmitter levels, boosts memory retention, increases learning potential, and releases chemicals that promote growth and regeneration of brain cells. All of these factors work together to decrease the risk of dreaded mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as slow their progression.
Starting a Senior Exercise Routine Safely
It’s understandable to fear exercise, especially if you have sustained an injury recently or haven’t been physically active in a long time. You’re right to be concerned. Our bodies aren’t as resilient as we grow older, and jumping into an intense workout routine without expert guidance can do more harm than good.
At the proper rate and with the right techniques however, anyone can benefit from fitness training – regardless of age or medical history. Here are a few of the things we watch for, and ways we approach senior fitness training for our clients 55 and older:
Get medical clearance before you begin.
Nobody knows what your body is and isn’t ready for better than your doctor. At Weight Crafters, we require that clients with preexisting conditions and other risk factors provide a doctor’s approval to attend our program for this very reason.
Your doctor will typically provide guidelines on what kinds of exercise to avoid or perform more carefully to avoid inflaming existing injuries or putting undue strain on weakened systems. He/she may also recommend planning out your schedule to account for medications or blood sugar monitoring.
Take it easy getting started.
If you haven’t been active in some time, suddenly jumping on a treadmill and running 7 miles isn’t going to end well. Starting off at a level you can handle may seem like common sense, but overdoing it on the first day is one of the biggest mistakes new exercisers make.
Always seek the guidance of a skilled trainer who knows how far is too far. Pushing yourself too far too fast may not only discourage you, but could even put your life at risk. At Weight Crafters our team is used to hearing, “I could have done a lot more of that,” on day one. By day three, they’re glad they didn’t. Trust your trainer, and stop where they tell you to.
Watch for these warning signs.
Exercise will push your limits and wear you out – but it should never leave you in serious pain or make you feel bad. If you experience any of these during your fitness routine, stop and consult your doctor or a medical professional immediately:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain or pressure
- Cold sweats
- Strong or sudden pain
Additionally, watch for pain, swelling and tenderness in your joints, as well as unexpected pressure changes in your ears. These can be indicators that it’s time to focus on a different kind of exercise – or to stop entirely for the day.
Stick with low-risk, low-impact activities.
Running, crunches, deadlifts and strength training techniques like chest presses or overhead presses are great exercises – but they can put a lot of strain on your joints, shoulders, chest and lower back if you’re not already accustomed to doing them. If you run frequently, your body can probably handle running more without a problem – but if you’re new to physical exercise it’s best to avoid anything that can inflame your joints or damage tendons and muscle groups that aren’t used to being used.
Instead, look at low-impact exercises. Walking for example, is far easier on your knees and hips than running. Likewise, spending some time on the rowing machine will offer many of the same benefits as a free-weight strength workout, with far less risk of injury.
If you already have trouble with join pain, there are other even lower-impact activities that can help. Swimming, water aerobics and the elliptical machine are favorites at Weight Crafters because they provide powerful workouts with minimal impact – especially for clients who are significantly overweight, have had a hip replacement, or are dealing with chronic joint pain.
Forming a Plan and Staying Motivated
The most important part of any exercise routine for any age group is sticking with it. For seniors this means setting reasonable, age-appropriate goals and looking for a range of enjoyable, low-impact activities that can be changed up regularly.
Make a long-term plan. Here are some pointers, to recap:
- Your plan should start off easy. Give yourself time to adjust. Remember – even if you’ve maintained a fitness routine in the past and merely stopped for a couple of months, your body still needs time to get back in the groove.
- Aim for multiple activities over shorter durations, rather than a single activity for a long period of time. This will help prevent injuries, muscle strain and burn-out.
- Slow and steady has always been the way to win – but this becomes even more true as we age. Stay focused on the long-term by tracking your progress with short-term goals and adjusting your long-term goals to fit the improvement trend you see.
- Avoid high-impact exercises, opting for lower-risk activities like pilates, walking, elliptical, spin biking, yoga, swimming and other water activities.
- Have your plan reviewed by your doctor and/or certified fitness trainer – especially if you’re new to exercise.
In addition to having a bullet-proof plan and tracking your progress, try these extra tips for staying motivated:
- Find a group to exercise with – or just a close friend who will do it with you. Having someone supporting you (and occasionally needing your support as well) is a powerful motivator, and a good way to stay accountable when you really feel like quitting.
- Use music or audio books to improve your workout time. Been meaning to catch up on a good book? There’s no better time to do it than an extended session on the treadmill. Music also has the fascinating ability to take the ‘time’ out of otherwise dull activities and make them enjoyable.
- Incorporate fun into your fitness plan. Tennis, golf and other non-contact sports can be great supplements to your routine – and can also help you see the rewards of your efforts, when your game improves!
- Feed the reward system in your brain by making a habit of working out when you feel stressed or depressed. Exercise will ease your mind, and can have the same mood-elevating effect as many prescription anti-depressants. And unlike so many unhealthy responses to stress, exercise is one addiction you can feel good about indulging in.
About Jeremy Ryland
When he isn't hitting the trails on his mountain bike, Jeremy enjoys writing about fitness related topics, networking with peers in the natural health industry, and spending time in the garage working on Jeeps.
Weight Crafters provides weight loss camp programs for adults and seniors in a fitness camp or "fat camp" format. Clients may stay as little as 1 week, or as long as 3+ months. Weight Crafters provides private rooms, one-on-one personal training, life coaching services, meals, snacks, and all other needs for the entire stay.
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