Elderly can also reap rewards of exercise

Checkup on Health

woman working in garden
While some loss of muscle mass and bone strength does come with aging, this process can be slowed and even reversed with exercise.

Posted Feb. 2, 2011

By Calvin H. Hirsch, M.D.

Not long ago, few doubted conventional thinking about aging: that it involves an inevitable downward trend in strength and general physical abilities.

As seniors reach their 80s and 90s, more will have difficulty doing normal daily activities, such as rising from a chair, climbing stairs, walking the dog, and playing with grandchildren. And with the inevitable decline in strength and balance, the risk of falls increases and the ability to live independently is threatened.

But a decade of research has changed our thinking. While some loss of muscle mass and bone strength does come with aging, this process can be slowed and even reversed with exercise.

Helps restore daily abilities

Dr. Hirsch is an internal medicine and geriatrics specialist at UC Davis Medical Center.

One of the most dramatic studies looked at 100 frail men and women in their 80s and 90s, almost all of whom took multiple medications and had at least one chronic illness such as arthritis or heart disease. Most used walkers to get around. Participants were led through 45-minute sessions of intensive resistance training three times a week.

At the end of 10 weeks, those who exercised more than doubled their muscle strength. They could walk faster, climb stairs easier, and became more spontaneously physically active. Measurements of thigh muscle showed an increase of nearly 3 percent in the exercisers compared to a loss of almost 2 percent in the control group.

A study at UC Davis showed that even mild to moderate resistance and flexibility exercises can restore and maintain the ability to do everyday physical activities, like carrying groceries and rising from a chair. Regular exercises like these can help older people feel better both physically and mentally.

Incorporating exercise into daily activities such as gardening and housework can help maintain fitness. Do them vigorously for 10 minutes at a time for a total of 3o daily minutes, most days of the week.

Therapeutic for many chronic conditions

In addition to resistance exercises, which keep the muscles working, moderate aerobic exercises, like walking, can help maintain cardiovascular fitness. You don’t need a gym or a fancy jogging suit to exercise.

The traditional recommendations include at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week. But you can achieve the same benefits by incorporating exercise into daily activities, like gardening and housework. Just do them vigorously for 10 minutes at a time, for a total of 30 minutes over the course of the day, most days of the week.

Many people who have been sedentary for years and are not in optimum health worry that it may be dangerous for them to start exercising. They might be surprised to know that for many chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, exercise is considered therapeutic.

When to get permission or help

There are only a few grave conditions that might make exercise unsafe, so standard advice is to see your doctor before starting an exercise program. But the vast majority of individuals of any age should really obtain their doctor’s permission to stay sedentary rather than to gradually increase their activity level! Of course, anyone who experiences dizziness or chest pain or tightness, whether exercising or at rest, should consult a doctor promptly.

Most people can tolerate a daily, gentle walking program for cardiovascular fitness.

Most people can tolerate a daily, gentle walking program for cardiovascular fitness. Other good activities for older people are swimming or water exercise classes. In addition, weight training two or three times a week should be undertaken to target muscle and bone strength.

The benefits of strength training only are gained by doing the exercises correctly. Because doing them improperly can also cause injuries, persons new to strength training should start out with the assistance of an instructor trained in the needs of the elderly. Many fitness clubs and senior centers offer classes aimed at the older set. Resistance training can be done effectively with Nautilus-type machines, with inexpensive free weights or with giant elastic bands designed for strengthening.

Physical and mental well-being

I congratulate my elderly patients for having done the right things to bring themselves to old age. At that point, they don’t need exercise to add years to their lives. They do need exercise, however, to add life to their years.

Exercise can contribute to both their physical and mental well-being, and enable them to maintain and even improve their current lifestyle.