It is a long-accepted belief that as we age it is appropriate (and expected) that we will slow down. We may even stop exercising altogether, but research shows that exercise for seniors can have a host of benefits. Here’s what we know and how seniors can get started exercising.
6 benefits of exercise for seniors
The following research studies add to the growing research of the benefits of physical activity at any age, but especially for seniors.
Even light exercise can improve your health
A study out of Oregon State University found that older adults who participated in light exercise were an average of 18% healthier than those who did not exercise. The study looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, between 2003 and 2006. This survey is conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. Because the survey is a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, widespread conclusions can be extrapolated from it.
Seniors who participated in 300 minutes a week of light exercise, including walking, completing household chores, and playing easy games like table tennis, had lower BMI measurements, smaller waist circumference, and better insulin measures than those who did not. This light intensity movement can include things like walking around while talking on the phone or parking the car far away from entrances to stores.
Lead author Paul Loprinzi, Ph.D. and assistant professor of exercise science and health promotion at the University of Mississippi pointed out that light intensity exercise can be an important part of a wellness program for seniors, saying:
“These findings highlight that, in addition to promoting moderate-intensity physical activity to older adults, we should not neglect the importance of engaging in lower-intensity, movement-based behaviors when the opportunity arises.”
Reduces pain and increases mobility
Not only does exercise help prevent chronic illness, increase overall health, and decrease the fear of falling, it also works to decrease pain and increase mobility.
An eight-week, low-impact exercise program designed and tested by the Hospital for Special Surgery saw dramatic improvements in pain and mobility levels among the seniors who participated regularly. Significantly, seniors in the study improved their ability to climb multiple flights of stairs; carry their groceries; and bend, kneel, or stoop. Ninety-one percent of participants felt less fatigue, and 97% reported less stiffness while completing the program.
Better sense of well-being and long-term health
A study found that older adults who continued to exercise into their 60s experienced a better sense of well-being and long-term health than those who did not.
The study was a small-scale study in Liverpool, England. Nurses helped implement a 12-week fitness and exercise intervention program. Twenty-five participants were in the exercise group, and 17 were in the control group (and received no special interventions). Study participants had physical and mental health challenges that included arthritis, dementia, and high cholesterol.
Those patients in the exercise group reported better health and an increased sense of well-being during the study.
They also found gains in strength and endurance, and they were able to stick with their exercise regimen for 12 months after the end of the study where they continued to report gains in power and strength. The exercise group felt more knowledgeable about physical health and activity after the study. They were also motivated to continue exercising. Participants felt that they understood better the benefits of exercise and physical activity after completing the study.
Reduces cancer risk
For women, exercise becomes a crucial part of maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of certain types of cancer. A report published by JAMA Oncology found that 300 minutes of moderate exercise per week was more effective at reducing body mass index (BMI) than a more vigorous 150 minutes, even without dietary changes.
Christine M. Friedenreich, Ph.D., of Alberta Health Services in Canada and the lead author of the study found a greater decrease in total BMI that included a greater loss of both abdominal and subcutaneous fat. Abdominal fat is a risk factor for a number of diseases, including diabetes and cardiovascular issues.
Friedenreich pointed out that although any level of exercise is good, for post-menopausal women, 300 minutes is an optimal amount. She noted:
“A probable association between physical activity and post-menopausal breast cancer risk is supported by more than 100 epidemiologic studies, with strong biologic rationale supporting fat loss as an important (though not the only) mediator of this association. Our findings of a dose-response effect of exercise on total fat mass and several other adiposity measures including abdominal fat…provide a basis for encouraging postmenopausal women to exercise at least 300 minutes/week, longer than the minimum recommended for cancer prevention.”
Add strength training for more benefits
Yes, light exercise such as walking is a great way to maintain overall health. Strength training has tremendous benefits as well. It can help prevent frailty, improve balance and coordination, and allow seniors to maintain their independence for longer. One study rising out of a collaboration between the MedUni Vienna, Wiener Hilfswerk and Sportunion Österreich and sponsored by the Vienna Science and Technology Fund found that for independent living, strength training of the hands was key.
In the study, an intervention group worked specifically on building hand strength, increasing their strength by 20% overall. This group also showed an increase in physical activity along with improved cognitive function. Significantly, biologic measures of this increase were also demonstrated. Albumin, a protein in the blood whose absence indicates a higher chance of frailty, was significantly higher in the intervention group. And Dorner indicated that one of the biggest fears among seniors was alleviated among the intervention group, saying:
“…the fear of falls was significantly reduced in the intervention group. This is very important, because the fear of falling leads to frail people moving less, and thus further depleting their muscular strength and increasing the risk of falls.”
Improves mental health
A study out of the University of Illinois found that seniors who exercised not only had a higher volume of white matter in their brains but also displayed greater mental flexibility than those who did not exercise. This finding is a significant piece of the puzzle for those people who would like to maintain their active independence for as long as possible.
Postdoctoral researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, who led the study with Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, noted that this is an objective measure of how exercise affects the brain and ultimately the quality of a senior’s physical and cognitive health, saying:
“Our study, when viewed in the context of previous studies that have examined behavioral variability in cognitive tasks, suggests that more-fit older adults are more flexible, both cognitively and in terms of brain function, than their less-fit peers.”
Exercise that includes a mix of strength training and low- to medium-intensity activity for at least 300 minutes a week provides the best benefit for seniors in terms of physical and mental wellness.
How does your exercise program measure up?
As we get older, we tend to slow down a bit. Muscles, joints, and bones begin to feel their years of wear, and some days are more achy than others. Many might take these creaks as a sign that they need to be more careful and gentle with their bodies. In fact, staying active and continuing to use the body with exercise is one of the key ways to stay healthier for longer.