Balanced Fitness Programs for Seniors: A Step, Pedal, and Stretch in the Right Direction

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) position statement entitled: “Guidelines for the Promotion of Physical Activity for Older Persons” states that most elderly people can find a physically active lifestyle beneficial and that simply being active trumps the actual type of physical activity they may engage in.

“There are many different kinds of physical activity which are beneficial for older persons,” states Dr. Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, Professor of Exercise Science at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. “We know that traditional forms of cardiovascular exercise are very beneficial. Strength training is beneficial, flexibility exercises are helpful, but also physical activity as part of everyday living is useful in the prevention of diseases that are associated with inactivity and sedentary lifestyles.”

Developing a balanced fitness regimen custom-tailored to the individual, incorporating cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility activities and accounting for any injuries, ailments, or other risk factors, is a first step to better health and longevity.

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Regular exercise is beneficial to seniors on many levels and it is never too late to start. Many independent living centers, community centers, etc. have fitness, activity, and dance programs specifically tailored by and for seniors.

Research shows that continuing to exercise while aging or instituting light to moderate physical activity later on in life may:

  • lessen overall mortality risk
  • aid in the reduction of numerous diseases in both men and women, including diabetes, lowering blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s
  • enhance joint and muscle performance
  • lessen the risk of fracture
  • keep bones healthy and strong
  • improve balance, coordination, reaction time, and mobility’

In turn, it has been determined that lighter physical activities like swimming, walking, bicycling, social dancing, and even gardening, provided they are performed with regularity, are just as beneficial if not more so than those described as strenuous.

The following is a list of activities for seniors that can be incorporated into a regular (at least three days/week,) balanced fitness program:

Cardiovascular

The importance of cardio exercise, i.e. raising the heart rate to the Target Heart Rate Zone (the best level for burning calories and improving fitness,) cannot be overstated, as it:

  • Burns calories, aiding in weight loss
  • Strengthens the heart
  • Improves lung capacity
  • Reduces the risk of heart attack and lowers cholesterol and high blood pressure
  • Reduces stress levels
  • Improves sleep

Cardio exercises and activities include:

  • Walking
  • Jogging
  • Stair climbing/stepping
  • Swimming
  • Cycling/stationary bicycling
  • Yard work (raking, shoveling snow, etc.)

Strength

Strength training can be accomplished with colored elastic bands of varying resistance, free weights like dumbbells, or exercise machines. As a participant increases their strength the level of resistance should increase in turn. Research shows that seniors who engage in regular, moderate strength training:

  • Build muscle strength and endurance
  • Bolster bone health, lessening the incidence of osteoporosis
  • Offset the weakening and frailty that generally accompanies the aging process
  • Lessen the incidence of arthritis
  • Improve balance
  • Lessen the incidence of pulmonary disease
  • Lessen the incidence of obesity
  • Lessen the incidence of Type II diabetes
  • Reduce back pain and problems

Flexibility

Stretching exercises allow for greater freedom of movement and increased flexibility, promoting greater physical activity and confidence in mobility. For those who suffer from maladies like chronic back and neck pain, problems with joints, osteoporosis, arthritis, etc. stretching may be helpful. Properly stretching before engaging in other activities like walking or strength training is also important.

Stretching can be enjoyable and performed practically everywhere. There are two types of stretching exercises: static and dynamic.

The static method, considered to the safest choice for stretching, is best to promote the continual extension and lengthening of muscle and tissue, allowing for a greater range of motion. This “low-load” stretch is achieved as the participant holds the position anywhere from 10-40 seconds.

The dynamic method is directed predominantly toward the joint and also aids in range of motion, employing oscillating or “bouncy” motions as opposed to prolonged positions. Dynamic stretching may be used to supplement the static method though are best performed upon completing a proper warm-up period.

There are a number of stretching exercises for both the upper and lower body.

Upper body:

  • Shoulder and upper back stretch—aids in reaching that high shelf in the pantry
  • Shoulder roll—also helps in reaching that high shelf or across the card table
  • Neck stretch/side—aids in common, daily movements, like finding the dogs chew toy under the couch
  • Neck rotation—aids in common, everyday movements, like bird watching
  • Shoulder circles—aids in increasing chest and lung flexibility
  • Chest stretch—lends to improving posture and lung function
  • Overhead reach stretch—aids in reaching that item in the back of the grocers freezer
  • Reach back stretch—aids in reaching back to grasp an armrest to assist in standing
  • Tricep stretch—aids in pushing out of a seated position
  • Hand stretch—effectively warms up the hands and fingers for use throughout the day

Lower body:

  • Seated leg lift—aids in stabilizing the lower back and pelvis
  • Standing quadricep stretch—lends to improved, straighter posture when standing
  • Back stretch—aids in bending and reaching
  • Thigh stretch—aids in standing, stepping, and walking
  • Calf stretch—aids in straightening the knees
  • Hip side and rotation stretches—aids in balance and stepping
  • Soleus stretch—aids in leg function and increases flexibility
  • Ankle circle and stretch—aids in the lessening of ankle swelling and hip and knee stiffness
  • Hamstring stretch—aids in forward leaning and reaching the feet
  • Knee-to-chest stretch—aids in keeping the lower back flexible

Whether starting from square one or maintaining an already established regimen, employing a balanced fitness program can be beneficial and fun though it is important to consult with a physician before beginning. Developing a program that is not only reasonably easy to maintain and adhere to but within one’s abilities is a great first step down the road to improved health and longer life.

Sarah Jennings has been taking care of others her whole life. In 2005, she moved her mother into her family home. She uses her personal experience to share with others about caring for the elderly. She currently writes on behalf of Brookdale assisted living.

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