Small Steps Add Up for Senior Fitness

If exercise is on your list of New Year's resolutions, you're in good company. Most of us are aware of the importance of physical activity, and during 2015, a host of new studies emphasized the benefits of exercise for older adults.

Seniors walking on a winter day

Here is just a small sample of the 2015 findings about exercise and aging:

  • Seniors who walk an average of seven blocks per day dramatically lower their risk of stroke and heart disease (Tufts University).
  • People with early-stage Alzheimer's disease not only can delay but even reverse brain shrinkage through moderate exercise (University of Maryland).
  • For seniors, adding more exercise may be of greater benefit than quitting smoking (Norwegian School of Sport Sciences).

Maybe you don't think you have what it takes to improve your health through exercise. If we're walking down the sidewalk with runners puffing past us, and we glance into the window of the local gym where members have the treadmills set at full speed, we might feel intimidated. But the truth is, our walk on the sidewalk is doing us good. Last year saw good news for those of us who aren't approaching an Olympic level of training: Even small increments of exercise can add up—especially for older adults.

According to Oregon State University researchers, many seniors are nervous about taking part in vigorous exercise, fearing health complications or injuries. Fortunately, explains Professor Brad Cardinal, lighter-intensity exercise may be almost as effective for people older than 65—so long as they spend a little more time at it. Cardinal says that rather than aiming for the standard recommendation of 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, seniors instead can substitute 300 minutes per week of light exercise, such as easy walking, leisurely sports such as ping pong or even household chores. "You get a nice array of health benefits by doing five hours of light physical activity per week," said Cardinal. "There appears to be some real value in devoting at least three percent of the 168 hours available in a week to these light forms of physical activity."

Tufts University researchers agree that as we grow older, increasing the time we spend exercising can make up for our slower speed. "Our study of older Americans shows that, even late in life, moderate physical activity such as walking is linked to lower incidence of cardiovascular disease," said study author Luisa Soares-Miranda, Ph.D. "It appears that whether one increases the total distance or the pace of walking, the risk is lowered. Fortunately, walking is an activity that many older adults can enjoy."

For people of every age, walking is one of the best forms of exercise. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently unveiled a new national campaign to improve the nation's health by encouraging everyone to walk. Step It Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities urges communities to promote walking and to remove barriers to safe walking, such as unsafe sidewalks and poor lighting.

10 ways to increase the amount of walking in your routine:

  • When you drive to the mall, don't worry about finding the closest parking space—just head for a far corner and walk from there.
  • If you're physically able, take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Customize your walk to keep yourself interested and motivated. Walk in different directions from your house, or hop a bus to a different part of town and walk there.
  • Listen to music on headphones. (If you're a Pandora listener, check out Surgeon General Murthy's playlist.) But don't use the kind of headphones that block out all outside sounds, and only wear them in safe areas. And don't talk on your cellphone while walking.
  • Meeting up with a friend? Instead of settling in at a café for a chat, go for a brisk walk as you catch up on each other's news.
  • Walk to shops in your neighborhood. Shopping locally not only provides exercise, but also promotes a vibrant community.
  • Invest in a pedometer to provide a little extra motivation.
  • Start a walking club! It's a fun way to stay motivated and you might make some new friends.
  • If you're a family caregiver, ask friends to schedule regular visits with your loved one while you go out for a workout. Or arrange for respite care from an in-home care agency.
  • Your loved one also is more likely to go for a walk if you come along—and it's good for you, too. Every little bit helps. If you use in-home care services, the caregiver also can provide supervision as your loved one exercises.

Walking is only the beginning.

Much research lately has emphasized the dangers of sitting. A sedentary lifestyle is linked to disability, shorter life and chronic disease. Just about any activity that gets you up and moving is a plus. Mowing the lawn, raking, gardening, swimming, biking and dancing all add increments of exercise. One intriguing study even suggests that we might do well to access our inner child, if that child was the squirmy type! Researchers from the University of Leeds in the UK found that people who consider themselves to be moderately or very "fidgety" seem to gain health benefits from their small, frequent movements.

Get in the habit of thinking how you can add motion to your everyday activities. Rather than sitting on the couch watching TV (which the National Cancer Institute recently linked to an increased risk of a host of diseases), walk around the room while you watch your favorite programs, or equip your treadmill with a TV. Stand up while you're talking on the phone or surfing the Web. Play active video games (such as Wii and similar systems) rather than spending hours hunched over your computer exercising only your wrist. Anything you can do while moving—do!

Talk to your healthcare provider before starting a fitness program, especially if you are older than 65 or living with mobility challenges. Discuss any concerns you might have about falling or other injuries. Once you get the green light, you're good to go!

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.