“It may not be the fountain of youth, but it’s the closest thing to it.” That’s how one local expert describes exercise for older adults. “We’re big proponents of exercise for all ages,” continues Dr. David Sinacore, a professor of physical therapy at Washington University. Sinacore’s research includes contributors to physical frailty in the elderly, and he identifies a three-prong approach to exercise for senior citizens: resistance training, standing balance exercises and aerobic activity.
Other experts agree that strength, balance and endurance are key goals of exercise programs for seniors. Although many younger and middle-aged adults work out to help control their weight, “we don’t recommend weight loss for older adults,” says Dr. Julie Gammack, a SLUCare physician specializing in geriatrics. “When older adults lose weight, they actually lose muscle and fat. Thus, they can get into a cycle of becoming more frail. If they’re dedicated to an exercise program that builds muscle, then we do accept weight loss if that’s appropriate medically.”
Another thing that senior citizens should keep in mind when exercising is that they won’t be able to perform like people who are a generation younger. Gammack notes that a common misperception among older adults is that “they need to be doing something that’s vigorous or meets a certain number of minutes per day or other guidelines that we think about in recommendations for younger adults.”
In fact, any exercise is good exercise for the senior population, and regardless of age, individuals who exercise regularly can expect to become stronger, faster and more flexible. Anyone can improve muscle strength and overall physical condition, notes Scott Henderson, an exercise specialist with St. John’s Mercy Heart and Vascular Hospital Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.
“The prevalence of chronic disease, such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis and obesity all go up with age, so when you’re working with somebody who’s an older adult, you can almost guarantee that you’ll also be working with one of these comorbid conditions,” he says.
For this reason, and also because older adults tend to have issues with balance and coordination, bone density, tactile sensation and respiration, it’s highly recommended that a senior citizen consult with a physician to obtain a referral to a physical therapist or a recommendation for a fitness trainer who is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Academy of Sports Medicine. These professionals can ensure that exercises are being performed correctly and help tailor an effective and safe program designed to achieve the individual’s goals.
Walking is universally considered to be an excellent activity for all adults and is a simple exercise that can be worked into almost anyone’s routine. Water aerobics and tai chi also come up repeatedly when experts are asked to provide specific exercise suggestions for senior citizens.
The main point: “It’s never too late to start,” Sinacore says. “Jump in, see someone to get some advice and start exercising.”