ACTIVE AT EVERY AGE - Exercise is the key to healthier retirement years

January 26, 2012


Exercise is the key to healthier retirement years

Seniors who exercise can look forward to the rewards of active living: longer, healthier lives and fewer threats of serious illness.

Retirement is supposed to be the beginning of a more carefree stage of life, as the responsibilities of career and raising children give way to freedom and free time to pursue favorite hobbies, travel to new places and devotion to grandchildren. But retirement reality often turns out quite different; many seniors spend more time with their doctors than their grandkids as they deal with frequent health problems, bouts of depression or declining cognitive abilities.     

While most people have gotten the message about the numerous health benefits of regular exercise, not everyone takes the message seriously enough to give up their sedentary ways.    

Seniors have as much to gain from exercise as any age group, but they can be tough to convince, and they have more reasons and excuses, legitimate and otherwise, for not exercising – difficulty walking, feeling tired, stiffness of the joints, aches and pains, to name a few.      

Staying mobile     

According to Dr. Suthee Siriwechdaruk, a board certified specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Bumrungrad, exercise is a proven way to strengthen disease prevention, promote healing and slow or reverse damage brought on by the aging process and other causes.     

Though they may have the most to gain from physical activity, seniors often require more of a push to exercise as their physical condition may be less than optimal. “Senior adults may need some encouragement to become motivated to start exercising,” says Dr. Suthee. “Helping them understand the benefits of exercise and the risks of inactivity is enough motivation for many seniors to make  the difference. Having reduced mobility doesn’t mean you can’t exercise – it’s a good reminder of the need to exercise so you can pursue a happier, healthier senior life with the freedom to go where you want and take part in activities that make you happy.”     

Our body’s mobility during our senior years can be affected by a number of factors: the aging process; chronic diseases such as diabetes that lead to artery damage, impaired vision, inflammation of bones and joints; muscle weakness or muscle atrophy due to nutritional deficiencies and lack of exercise; and balance and coordination problems including feinting spells, dizziness and disorientation that are more likely to affect stroke victims and those with Parkinson’s or other diseases.      

Dr. Suthee stresses that exercise should be considered a necessity instead of something optional. “Exercise is a must because it provides so many health benefits,” he says.  “For seniors, exercise increases joint mobility, builds muscle strength, improves balance and coordination, and boosts heart and lung function. Seniors with joint stiffness can quickly see results from specific joint exercises. Regular aerobic exercise helps diabetes patients burn calories more efficiently and lowers the amount of sugar and fat in the blood. Some diabetic seniors achieve such dramatic results from exercise that their disease can be managed without the need for medication.”  

Senior-suitable exercises    

The right types of exercise for younger adults aren’t necessarily appropriate for seniors, especially those being treated for certain medical conditions. “It’s important that seniors avoid high-resistance and high-intensity exercises,” Dr. Suthee advises. “I always recommend my senior patients include exercises targeting different areas of the body, and be sure their exercise routine is ‘slow but consistent’ and ‘low resistance’.”      

Following are some of the best, most comprehensive exercises to boost senior body performance and improve overall health and fitness:     

Increased joint mobility. Range-of-motion exercises can be performed by moving each joint through its full range of motion. For example, for shoulder mobility, slowly raise one arm above the head as high as possible; repeat five to ten times for each shoulder.     

Stronger muscles. Resistance training strengthens the core muscles involved in body movement. These include leg, hip and back muscles. Light weightlifting, push-ups done against a wall, and hand- and leg-raisers are all effective muscle builders for seniors.     

Better flexibility and balance. Exercising an individual body part through its full range of motion helps stretch muscles. At the same time, the shifting of weight forward and back improves balance, a benefit that reduces the risk of falls, injuries and muscle pain. Yoga and tai chi are two of the best basic movement exercises.     

Improved heart and lung function. Aerobic exercise is one of the best ways for seniors to improve the function of their heart and lungs. For maximum results, increase the intensity level of each workout gradually until you reach your target heart rate (THR). For seniors, the target heart rate ranges from 60 to 70 percent of one’s maximum heart rate, a level that is lower than the THR for younger adults. During exercise, try to maintain your THR for about 15 minutes, and include aerobic workouts three times each week, or about every other day.


“An optimal exercise program encompasses these four categories, giving seniors a full range of benefits to health and physical fitness,” notes Dr. Suthee.

Limited-mobility exercises 

Limited physical mobility doesn’t preclude most seniors from exercising; there are plenty of ways to achieve better health by exercising while seated or lying down. Less-strenuous exercise is always better than no exercise at all. Seniors still have a great deal of influence over their post-retirement health and happiness, beginning with a conscious choice to start living more active lives.

Exercise exertion: Is your workout too intense?   

Exercise is fundamental to healthier living. But pushing yourself too hard or for too long can turn a good thing into something harmful, especially for senior adults. One way to measure your level of exercise exertion is to use the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The Borg Scale assigns a numerical value from 6 to 20, as detailed below, based on the physical sensations a person feels during exercise.


Exercise made safer

Many seniors worry about exercise jeopardizing their safety and increasing their risk for injuries and accidents. Whatever one’s age, there’s a right way to exercise and a wrong way. Exercising the wrong way causes painful injuries and potential health problems. Before starting any exercise program, be sure to follow these recommendations:


  • Consult your doctor to confirm that it’s safe to start exercising; your doctor can recommend specific exercises best suited to your individual situation while ruling out the presence of any medical problems that may be aggravated by exercise.
  • Build intensity gradually, starting with simple, short exercises that gradually increase endurance until your body can tolerate a 15- to 30-minute workout.
  • Choose proper shoes and wear comfortable but not overly-loose clothing.
  • Exercise in a safe environment; the floor should be flat and firm, and room temperature should be moderate, neither too hot nor too cold.
  • Choose exercises that you find enjoyable and that suit your physical fitness level. Early on, avoid resistance exercises in favor of low-impact activities like walking, cycling and swimming.
  • Keep breathing normally; holding your breath or speeding up your breathing increases peripheral vascular resistance, which forces the heart to work harder and puts you at risk of high blood pressure.
  • Allow sufficient recovery time between workouts. Consider switching to lighter exercises until muscle soreness subsides.
  • Before beginning each workout, always warm up for about ten minutes to stretch your muscles. And don’t end your workout without cooling down for five to ten minutes. This reduces the risk of dizziness and fainting while allowing blood flow to gradually return to its normal rate.
  • Avoid working out when you’re feeling tired. And it’s a good idea to end a workout if you feel overly tired, such as when breathing heavily makes it difficult to speak normally. 
  • Stop your workout and get medical help if you experience shortness of breath, chest pain or dizziness.  

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