Today’s seniors are more active than ever before and expanding their social activities to include physically challenging hobbies. Bridge, bingo and crosswords are not the only pastimes being enjoyed by today’s seniors. In fact, many seasoned adults are continuing to enjoy biking, gardening and yoga well into their golden years. Even more impressive is the fact some of you are exploring more rigorous and demanding activities such as rock climbing, hiking, Zumba and even competing in running races such as a 5Ks or marathons. Age is truly only a number.
“There are two primary reasons seniors are more active, the first being a health scare. A heart attack, a diabetes diagnosis, or a surgery may motivate a person to make healthier changes. The other reason is that many boomers started a fitness activity in their younger years. Therefore, being active has become a lifestyle they want to continue or get back,” shares Christopher Wood, DO, a geriatrics physician with the Carilion Center for Healthy Aging.
Embracing more aggressive styles of fitness can have tremendous benefits. Since many physical activities also tend to be social, they stimulate the brain in different areas. The well-known cliché “If you don’t use, you lose it” holds true for mental sharpness, muscular strength and joint range of motion. “When you don’t have adequate circulation, you also cognitively slow down,” explains Dr. Wood. “If muscles atrophy [from lack of use], the risk of falling increases. The more physically active the individual is, the less sick they become and recovery times are quicker.”
Challenges will come with age. However, those challenges can be faced proactively with a desire to improve the quality of life or to prolong life itself. A healthy lifestyle that includes both a balanced diet and active habits will help combat many physical and mental ailments if followed consistently. After making some minor changes, many seniors will get positive results in just a few weeks.
Where to start
There are numerous activities that work well for people of all ages, including those with more life experience. The key is finding activities that you enjoy and can modify to your needs or lifestyle.
If you are transitioning from a sedentary lifestyle to incorporating more activity, walking can be the best form of exercise. “Walking elevates your heart rate, increases blood flow and begins toning muscles,” Dr. Wood reminds us. “Walking also improves joint mobility, which in turn helps alleviate joint pain.”
Begin by walking to the end of your sidewalk, driveway or mailbox. As that task becomes easier, gradually increase your distance and/or speed to increase your heart rate to the desired level. According to Anne Lavery, the wellness coordinator at Green Ridge Recreation Center, “Calculating a person’s target heart rate varies by age. For example, a 55-year-old would like a target heart rate between 50-85% of 83-140 beats per minute. A 65-year-old would like a target heart rate between 50-80% of 78-132 beats per minute.” Doing something active (even if it seems small) is better than sitting and doing nothing at all.
Fitness-minded seniors who are looking to add variety to their already active lifestyles may find that local fitness clubs, gyms and senior centers offer an array of classes and contests to meet the needs of a diverse population. Differentiation is key. Being involved in various activities will help you avoid boredom and the overuse of certain muscles, tendons and ligaments, which could possibly cause injuries.
Seniors should look for activities that increase heart rates, but also include strength-building and flexibility components. Lavery shares, “the following are some of our more popular classes for seniors.”
- TITH “Twinges in the Hinges” Aqua Class – Improves joint flexibility and reduces pain and stiffness
- Fit for Life – Improves endurance, strength, balance and flexibility with low impact
- Back in Shape – Improve strength, balance, flexibility and posture
- Dancercise – Completed while sitting in chairs to increase mobility and confidence
- Balance Ball – A low-impact way to strengthen and stabilize the core to help prevent falls and create overall body toning
- T'ai Chi – Meditation involving movement and strengthening of mental focus to gain muscle tone, increase endurance and improve circulation
“Hydrotherapy is also a great form of exercise,” adds Dr. Wood. Activities held in the water have a low impact on the joints while building endurance fairly quickly. Some fitness centers offer underwater treadmills for rehabilitation from injuries or surgeries, making walking or jogging more feasible for some.
“It is amazing to see how their [seniors’] range of movement, balance and mobility can be improved by just a half an hour of exercise on a regular basis. The comradery one finds in a group of peers is heartwarming and beneficial to one's sense of well-being.”
–Anne Lavery, Wellness Coordinator, Green Ridge Recreation Center
Regardless of age or previous exercise experience, professionals advise consulting your primary care physician prior to beginning any new physical activity. The goal is to provide the best possible results while keeping the risk of injury to a minimum. Advise your class instructor of any health concerns or past injuries when beginning a new class or program. Also, hydration is important. “Be sure to drink water and eat a protein-rich snack before exercising, and make certain to have water available during and after exercise regimens,” reminds Lavery.
Simply having experienced another birthday (or two) doesn’t mean that you should give up setting fitness goals or lose the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. There are numerous activities just waiting for you to experience them.