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House Call: Fitness and aging – exercise tips for senior citizens

UPDATED: Wed., April 7, 2021

By Dr. Jeff Markin For The Spokesman-Review

The other day, I received a note from a patient who has seen me for nearly 30 years. The patient recalled a conversation we’d had many years ago when I first expressed an interest in taking care of senior citizens and remarked, “I guess we’re both seniors now!”

With spring here, I want to focus this month’s column on a subject near and dear to my heart: fitness and aging. Having made many exercise mistakes over the years, I’d like to share guidance on do’s and don’ts, as well as stress the importance of a regular fitness routine as we age.

Regular exercise can improve balance and flexibility, which helps seniors prevent falls and maintain independence. While there are numerous examples of incredible fitness achievements for senior folks (e.g., Jack LaLanne at age 60 swimming to Alcatraz while handcuffed), most of us are content to simply get in reasonable shape without injury.

One adage often used in geriatric pharmacology is to start low and go slow. This is also true of starting an exercise program. You should use low tension and low speed to begin and gradually ramp up as you get more conditioned.

It’s never too late to start

The benefits of exercise are well-documented and especially important for seniors. A recent Swedish study found physical activity was the No. 1 contributor to longevity, adding extra years to your life – even if you don’t start exercising until your senior years.

Many seniors worry they are too old to begin regular exercise, but nothing says you can’t start working out just because you’ve turned 80. In fact, the mood benefits of exercise can be just as great at 70 or 80 as they were at 20 or 30.

As people age, regular exercise is one of the best ways to preserve body function and personal independence. Exercise is linked to improved immune and digestive functioning, better blood pressure and bone density and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis and certain cancers.

Exercise also improves balance and flexibility, with studies showing that walking for just 30 minutes per day reduces a person’s hip fracture risk by 25% to 30%.

Where should I begin?

Finding the motivation to start exercise is challenging at any age, but many seniors feel discouraged by aches and pains or concerns about injuries. Some of my patients have told me they are afraid to start exercise because they have arthritis and worry that they will harm themselves – but the opposite is actually true.

Joints and cartilage are nourished by movement, meaning exercise can improve joint mobility and arthritis pain. Stretching and exercises focused on balance lesson aches and injury risk by strengthening your body.

Becoming more active can energize your mood, relieve stress, help you manage symptoms of illness and pain and improve your overall sense of well-being. If you are looking to start exercise, I suggest two things: set a schedule, and find a friend for exercising.

Creating a routine makes it easier to fit exercise into your life and allows you to set reasonable expectations for yourself. Remember, you don’t need to exercise every day – it’s important to give your body a chance to rest and recover.

It’s easier to exercise when you make it a social activity. Take a walk through a park or mall with a friend, or find someone who can attend a water aerobics class with you. Exercising with friends keeps you accountable to your workout schedule and brings more fun to getting active.

Now that more seniors are vaccinated, a group walk can be the perfect way to reconnect with people you’ve missed during the pandemic.

Activities for older adults

I suggest incorporating some of the following exercises to help improve balance, flexibility and confidence. I’m a huge fan of low-impact exercises such as cycling along with mild to moderate strength training. Here are some examples:

Walking: Walking is perfect for seniors who are just starting to exercise consistently. All you need are a pair of comfortable walking shoes and a destination. Look for programs in your area if you’d like a group to walk with (community organizations, senior centers or local parks and recreations).

Yoga: Yoga helps with flexibility and balance – even if you are just a beginner. There are multiple low-impact yoga DVDs and streaming venues that you can do in your own living room. Find a yoga routine that is adapted to the level that fits you best.

Cycling: A great low-impact exercise for strengthening and conditioning.

Water aerobics: Easy on joints, low impact and safe if you have pool access.

Senior sports or fitness classes: Exercising with others can help keep you motivated and reduce boredom. Try activities like pickleball or outdoor group hikes to reconnect with friends you’ve missed this past year.

Tai chi and qi gong: Both martial arts-inspired systems of movement engage your mind and body, leading to increased balance and strength. Classes for seniors are often available at community centers. This exercise is especially helpful at reducing the risk of falling.

If you are looking for local exercise options available now, try the free Bloomsday training clinics sponsored by Providence Health Care and Kaiser Permanente. Every Friday through April 23, experts broadcast training tips live from Facebook.

Remember, we are still in a pandemic. Even fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, cover coughs and sneezes and wash your hands often to keep everyone safe.

The mental benefits of exercise

We tend to focus on the physical impacts of exercise, but one of the reasons regular activity is so important for seniors is that it has significant mental health benefits. One of the ways that exercise helps us fight dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is by engaging our brains and bodies at the same time.

Improved sleep. As people age, they often experience changing sleep patterns and have more difficulty getting enough quality sleep. Exercise can help you fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply, which make people feel more energized when they wake.

Boost your mood. Exercise produces endorphins that help you relieve stress. Being active improves your self-confidence and helps reduce feelings of sadness, depression and anxiety.

Improved brain function. Being creative is important for keeping your mind sharp as you age. Exercise requires focus and multitasking, which help prevent memory loss, cognitive decline and dementia.

Listen to your body

The best way to cope with injuries is to avoid them in the first place. Exercise should never hurt. Stop exercising immediately and call your doctor if you feel dizzy or short of breath, develop chest pain or pressure or experience swelling.

Exercise means a better quality of life

If there is one thing that improves a person’s quality of life, it is regular exercise. Getting active can reduce physical pain, improve mental health and bring more social opportunities to your life. Perhaps the most powerful benefit of getting in shape is you just plain feel better. Celebrate this spring by getting outdoors and making a plan to be active with family and friends.

Dr. Jeff Markin is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Veradale Medical Center.

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