May is “National Physical Fitness and Sports Month,” a great time to renew your commitment to a healthy and active lifestyle and perhaps resume any New Year’s resolutions that have fallen by the “waistline.”
Studies confirm that physical activity and exercise are good for older adults and staying physically active has lots of health benefits. Even moderate amounts of exercise and physical activity can improve the health of older people who already have diseases and disabilities.
Many older adults are reluctant to exercise out of fear of injury or the exercises being too difficult. Some think they need special equipment or to join a gym. Consequently, many older adults end up “taking it easy.” However, studies show that this approach can be detrimental. Older people do not lose their abilities to do things just because they have aged. The decline in function is usually due to inactivity. There is truth to the saying “use it or lose it.” Lack of physical activity can lead to more doctor visits, hospitalizations, and the need for more medications to treat more illnesses.
Staying physically active and exercising regularly can help prevent and/or delay many diseases and disabilities. Regular physical activity promotes a strong immune system, protects against bone loss, promotes regular digestive health and helps manage stress. Often, it can be an effective treatment for chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, balance problems, high blood pressure and arthritis. Regular exercise also reduces feelings of depression and has been shown to improve and/or maintain aspects of cognitive function.
Before you begin an exercise program, have a checkup with your doctor to find out if there are any restrictions based on your health issues. Start slowly; it can be as simple as a 10-minute walk twice daily. Be consistent and as your endurance improves over time, you will be able to do more activity for longer durations.
If something hurts persistently while you are exercising, stop doing it. Rest when you get sick, but remember to resume at a reduced pace when you are feeling better. Wear comfortable clothing. Remember to breathe through the exercises and hydrate before, during and after the activity. Taking time to warm up and cool down is also very important. Gradually increase the length and intensity of your activities, which will become easier as you exercise consistently. Varying the type of activity keeps things interesting and fun.
Types of exercises include cardio-respiratory endurance exercises to get the heart rate up and breathing faster. Examples are walking, cycling and swimming. Another type of exercise, strength and resistance training, helps prevent bone loss and improve balance. Stretching and flexibility exercises improve and maintain flexibility, prevent injury and reduce muscle soreness and stiffness.
Regardless of the exercise you choose, the most important thing is to get started with physical activity on a regular basis. To quote Mark Twain, “the secret to getting ahead is getting started.” You will reap the rewards.
Dr. Grace I. Chen is a board-certified geriatrician with the highly regarded UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica and Westwood. For more information, call 310.319.4371 or visit www.uclahealth.org.