14 January 2003

Keep turning that wheel of life

To make sure your golden years really sparkle, start an exercise program and stick with it.

To make sure your golden years really sparkle, start an exercise program and stick with it.

"Physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health at any age. That doesn't decrease as you get older," says Mary Turner.

A stronger heart and lungs along with healthier muscles, bones and joints, together with weight control, better balance, a positive self image and a stronger immune system - these are just some of the benefits for seniors who exercise regularly.

There's a tremendous amount of science behind the importance of doing it.

Fewer than 15 percent of people over the age of 65 get enough physical activity. By age 75, one-third of the men and half the women in the United States become permanent couch potatoes who do no physical activity. That puts them at risk for all sorts of health problems and injuries, including falls.

"Falls are the leading cause of death from injury for seniors," says Gayle Bouvet, coordinator of Strong and Steady, an exercise, education and fall prevention program for older adults at the University of Washington.

Between 25 and 35 percent of seniors fall at least once each year. And about half of those hospitalised for fall-related injuries get sent on to nursing homes. It can be a devastating blow to their quality of life.

"So if we can, through exercise, reduce the risk for falls, we'll help them live longer independently. It's really important. More important than increasing their life span. I think most older adults are interested in living independently as long as possible," Bouvet says.

She says studies show that seniors taking part in exercise programs can reduce their risk of falling by as much as 35 percent.

Despite the obvious benefits, many seniors find it difficult to start and stick with an exercise program.

Something like 50 percent of seniors who start a program will not be doing it after about six months.

Many seniors feel they're too old to start an exercise program.

"I've come across that, especially with the strengthening exercises," Bouvet says. "A lot of seniors just don't see the point. They say they've had this strength all their life and they've done just fine. So we try to educate them on the research about strength training and how important it is."

Strength is more important than aerobic fitness in terms of maintaining the ability to perform day-to-day tasks and movements that are the core of independent living. That includes something as basic as being able to get up from a chair.

Turner agrees that strength training is essential and notes that inactive people lose about one-third of their muscle strength by the time they turn 60.

What to do
Turner and Bouvet offer a number of exercise and fitness suggestions for seniors:

  • Don't do 30 minutes of exercise all at once - if you don't want to. You can do it in 10-minute sessions, three times a day.
  • Choose activities that you enjoy. Don't sign up for an aerobics class if you hate aerobics.
  • If you've never exercised, start with something easy, like walking. There's a low risk of injury and it doesn't cause a lot of muscle soreness, which may discourage you from doing it again.
  • Exercise with a friend or in a class to help keep you motivated. If you exercise alone, listen to a recorded book or music to reduce boredom. Cross-training also reduces boredom and works different muscle groups.
  • Set goals and track your activity, so you can evaluate your progress and see what you've accomplished.
  • Work exercise into your daily routine. Use the stairs instead of the elevator, park at the far end of the parking lot so you have a longer walk to the mall, take your dog for walks.

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