For many adults, growing older seems to involve an inevitable loss of strength, energy, and fitness. However it need not be so. The frail health and loss of function we associate with aging, such as difficulty walking long distances, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries, is in large part due to physical inactivity and when it comes to our muscles and physical fitness, the old adage applies: "Use it or lose it." However there is good news; first, it's never too late to become physically active, no one is too old to enjoy the benefits of regular physical activity.
Regular physical activity has beneficial effects on most (if not all) organ systems, and consequently it prevents a broad range of health problems and diseases. Physical activity in older persons produces three types of health benefits:
- It can reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease.
- It can aid in the management of active problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, or high cholesterol.
- It can improve the ability to function and stay independent in the face of active problems like lung disease or arthritis.
Substantial health benefits occur with a moderate amount of activity (e.g., at least 30 minutes of brisk walking) on 5 or more days of the week. Additional health benefits can be gained through longer duration of physical activity or more vigorous activity. Brief episodes of physical activity, such as 10 minutes at a time, can be beneficial if repeated.
Sedentary persons can begin with brief episodes and gradually increase the duration or intensity of activity. Older persons can benefit further from activities aimed at building or maintaining muscle strength and balance.
A recent review of individually tailored programs for elderly people demonstrated that programs to build muscle strength, improve balance, and promote walking significantly reduced falls in older persons. Experts recommend that older adults should participate at least 2 days a week in strength training activities that improve and maintain muscular strength and endurance. Older adults should also perform physical activities that enhance and maintain flexibility. However, older adults are sensitive to the effects of physical activity, and even small amounts of activity are healthier than a sedentary lifestyle.
Older adults with chronic illnesses or disabilities can gain significant health benefits with a moderate amount of physical activity, especially if it is done daily. Physical activity need not be strenuous to bring health benefits. What is important is to include activity as part of a regular routine.
Moderate amounts of low-impact activities such as swimming, water exercises, or stretching are recommended for those who have difficulty with their mobility. There are various low-impact exercises that can be done by those who have certain disabilities, such as wheelchair exercises and games, muscle-strengthening activities to help improve the ability to perform daily tasks, and strength training exercises such as calisthenics or light weight lifting. Gentle forms of yoga and tai chi are designed to promote flexibility, improve balance, and increase strength as well.
*Image courtesy: © Thinkstock photos/ Getty Images
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