From Dr. Jeff Markin

For the speaker review

The other day I received a message from a patient who has been visiting me for almost 30 years. The patient recalled a conversation we had many years ago when I first expressed an interest in caring for seniors and said, “I think we are both seniors now!”

With spring here, I want to dedicate this month’s column to a topic that is close to my heart: fitness and aging. After making many exercise mistakes over the years, I want to give you advice on the do’s and don’ts, and emphasize the importance of a regular fitness routine in old age.

Regular exercise can improve balance and flexibility, which will help seniors avoid falls and maintain their independence. While there are numerous examples of incredible fitness performances for the elderly (e.g., Jack LaLanne, aged 60, handcuffed swimming to Alcatraz), most of us are content with just getting into reasonable shape with no injury.

A common saying in geriatric pharmacology is: start low and go slow. This also applies to the beginning of a training program. You should use low tension and low speed to start and gradually increase as you are 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 that physical activity is the single most important factor in longevity, adding extra years to your life – even if you don’t start exercising until old age.

Many seniors fear that they are too old to start exercising regularly, but nothing says that you can’t start exercising just because you have turned 80. In fact, the mood benefits of exercising at 70 or 80 can be just as great as they were at 20 or 30.

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

Exercise also improves balance and flexibility. Studies have shown that walking for as little as 30 minutes a day reduces a person’s risk of hip fractures by 25 to 30%.

Where should I start?

Motivation to start exercising is challenging at any age, but many seniors feel discouraged by pain or concerns about injury. Some of my patients have told me that they are afraid to start exercising because they have arthritis and are worried about harming themselves – but the opposite is true.

Joints and cartilage are nourished by exercise, which means exercise can improve joint mobility and improve arthritis pain. Stretching and exercises that focus on imbalance and risk of injury by strengthening your body.

Getting more active can stimulate your mood, reduce stress, help you manage symptoms of illness and pain, and improve your general wellbeing. If you’re ready to start exercising, I suggest two things: Set a schedule and find a friend to exercise.

Creating a routine makes it easier to incorporate exercise into your life and allows you to have reasonable expectations of yourself. Remember, you don’t have to exercise every day – it’s important to allow your body to rest and recover.

It’s easier to work out when you make it a social activity. Take a friend for a walk through a park or mall, or find someone who can take you to an aqua aerobics class. Training with friends keeps you accountable for your training plan and makes it more fun to get active.

Now that more seniors are vaccinated, a group walk can be the perfect way to get back in touch with people you missed during the pandemic.

Activities for older adults

I suggest incorporating some of the following exercises to improve balance, flexibility, and confidence. I’m a big fan of gentle exercises like cycling along with light to moderate weight training. Here are some examples:

Go: Walking is perfect for seniors who are just starting to exercise consistently. All you need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes and a destination. If you have a group going for a walk with a group, look for programs near you (community organizations, senior centers, or local parks and recreational facilities).

Yoga: Yoga helps with flexibility and balance – even if you are still a beginner. There are several gentle yoga DVDs and streaming locations that you can do in your own living room. Find a yoga routine tailored to the level that suits you best.

To go biking: A great low-impact exercise for strengthening and conditioning.

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

Senior sports or fitness courses: Exercising with others can help you stay motivated and avoid boredom. Try activities like pickleball or outdoor group hikes to reconnect with friends you missed over the past year.

Tai-Chi and Qigong: Both martial arts-inspired movement systems integrate body and mind, which leads to more balance and strength. Courses for seniors are often offered in community centers. This exercise is especially helpful in reducing the risk of falls.

If you’re looking for local exercise options that are available now, try the free Bloomsday exercise 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 individuals should continue to wear masks, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated rooms, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash their hands frequently to ensure everyone’s safety.

The mental benefits of exercise

We tend to focus on the physical effects of exercise, but one of the reasons regular exercise is so important to seniors is because it has significant mental health benefits. Exercise helps us fight dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by involving our brain and body at the same time.

Improved sleep. As people get older, they often experience changing sleep patterns and have more difficulty getting a good night’s sleep. Exercise can help you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper, which can make people feel more energetic when they wake up.

Raise 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 to keeping your mind sharp as you age. Movement requires focus and multitasking, which will help prevent memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia.

Listen to your body

The best way to deal 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, short of breath, develop chest pain or pressure, or develop swelling.

Movement 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 relieve physical pain, improve mental health, and bring more social opportunities into your life. Perhaps the biggest benefit of getting in shape is that you just feel better. Celebrate this spring by going outside and making a plan to be active with family and friends.

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

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