Fitting Fitness Into Later Life
By Lenora Dannelke
Do your clients think that age slows them down and tires them out? Rather than advancing years, the more likely culprit behind declining physical abilities in older adults is inactivity. While pointing out that exercise can improve heart health and reduce plaque in arteries, Andrea Conner, MPH, RD, CDE, CPT, owner of WellBody Nutrition and Fitness in Scottsdale, Ariz., also notes, “One of the major benefits for people older than 65 is the mood elevation and the contact, potentially, with other people. It reduces the isolation that sometimes occurs when they lose friends or family members.”
Joining a mall walking club, finding a gym with “silver sneakers” programs, or becoming involved with the community through events such as diabetes walks can be a good start. Older adults should “look for things that are fun and not necessarily super high intensity,” Conner says, citing ballroom dancing, golfing, or moderate hiking as examples. “Those allow for movement that is weight bearing, which can be important to prevent or help in the treatment of osteoporosis or osteopenia. When compared to something like bike riding, that helps build up the bone.”
Those with a sedentary lifestyle should start with just three to five minutes of activity three times per week. “And that can be broken into chunks throughout the day, then add on a minute or two as tolerated each week,” Conner says. “But besides aerobic activities, one of the major things that they should be doing—and I see a lot of people not doing—are activities to increase or preserve their mean body mass, because that naturally declines as we get older.”
Older adults could exercise with resistance bands or a Pilates ball or even practice power yoga, but a personal trainer experienced in working with older populations should assist older adults in individualizing these programs, especially if pain or past injuries are involved. “You want the functional capacity of the muscle to be there, so activities of daily living, like taking the groceries up the stairs or even cleaning the house, [don’t] become cumbersome as time goes on,” Conner says.
Power training can also supplement resistance and strength training in the retention of muscle mass and bone density. “Increasing muscular power can help with functional abilities, like doing simple tasks or being able to move quickly to prevent a fall,” says Jenna Becker, RD, CLT, NASM-PES/CES, owner of P.E.A.R.L.S. Nutrition in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “Power training doesn’t necessarily mean what you see people doing in weight-lifting competitions. It could simply mean going from sitting to standing but going a little faster. By going 10% faster, you get that muscle working [more quickly]. The training can also improve balance and walking speed.”
Water-based activities can also incorporate resistance aspects but with low impact on joints.
Becker notes that in addition to helping people get in and out of cars more easily, strength training contributes to blood sugar control, flexibility, endurance, energy, and self-confidence. Consulting the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which certifies specialists after they have acquired a bachelor’s degree, or the American College of Sports Medicine can assist people in selecting a trainer who understands the specifics of working with older adults. Being able to understand how chronic conditions, diabetes, or heart disease impact the body is important in developing an appropriate exercise regimen, especially one that can easily be continued at home without supervision or expensive equipment.
And like people of all ages who are starting a new physical routine, older adults should consult their physician first. “And look at the nutrition component,” says Becker, who sees a synergistic relationship between exercise and diet. “They’re so intertwined. A lot of times as people get older, they don’t eat as much or drink enough water, so they could get dehydrated or they might not get enough carbohydrates or protein to help their muscles recover.”
Other nutrients specifically important for bones and muscle mass are calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, which, according to Becker, is sometimes not commonly available to or easily absorbed by older adults’ bodies. “Your diet needs to be well rounded. It’s easy to get in the habit of a bagel for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner and forget about the need for protein,” she notes.
Older adults who are hesitant or fearful of exploring new physical activities should keep in mind that the riskiest behavior may be doing nothing at all.
— Lenora Dannelke is a freelance writer in Allentown, Pa.