“People don’t stop moving because they get old. They get old because they stop moving.”
We’re continuously aging, but the quality of our own and our loved ones’ later years is profoundly affected by how much we move. Movement is essential to life, and the lack of it has several negative consequences including loss of independence.
Seniors want to be able to live independently in their own homes – even if some assistance is needed – for as long as possible. Not only is this better for their physical and emotional well-being, but it's also generally a superior and cost-effective way to coordinate the services they might need in the future.
Because of this, a crucial piece is to ensure your loved one is engaging in both movement and exercise on a daily basis.
While exercise is obviously a form of movement, the difference is that movement itself is defined, in the case of your elderly loved one living independently as possible, by their ability to safely perform active daily living (ADL) tasks. These types of activities include: personal care, making meals, household chores, shopping, running errands, etc.
Exercise is a deliberate movement done to improve and maintain cardiovascular health, strength, balance, flexibility, and energy – all critical aspects for ensuring the ability of your loved ones to independently do as much of those daily activities as they can.
There are also other – sometimes overlapping - sets of more complex skills seniors need to remain independently at home. These are called instrumental activities of daily living (IADL).
Along with housework, shopping, and meal preparations, IADLs include managing medications, finances, transportation needs, and being able to use the phone and other means of communication.
Movement and exercise also have a positive effect on mental health including improved memory and problem-solving, and reduced depression, anxiety, and pain; all of which are essential to do these more complex tasks.
Along with good quality nutrition (see previous article - ? link to intro/nutrition article), movement and exercise are key to improving and supporting your elderly loved ones health, which in turn, is essential for independent living.
Included in each of the following sections are a few simple exercises your loved one can do to improve and maintain each area of their health. A number of these exercises will overlap, making for an easier way to get in more health benefits at the same time. Note that there are modified versions you can find online (ie: YouTube) for those who have limited mobility or other health issues.
Exercises for Aerobic Health
Aerobic exercises get the heart pumping; helping get fresh oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. They also help maintain good muscle tone which is critical for all day-to-day activities, and is especially important for keeping a good balance.
While fitness experts recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 5 to 6 days a week, many seniors may need to start off with doing less and work their way up. Depending on the type of activity, even just 5 minutes a few times a day is a good start. Other activities such as swimming or longer walks can be reserved for when they’ve developed more strength and stamina.
The most important first step is to have your elderly loved one’s overall fitness level tested and recorded to know their starting point. If they can, it’s also important for them to listen to their body so as to not overdo it, but to push themselves a little bit more over time to allow improvement. Both you and they need to note that any improvement is better than expectations, and that it will take time. In many cases, senior bodies can improve although it might take a bit of time.
Top 3 Aerobic Exercises for Seniors
A sturdy pair of shoes and clothing suitable for the weather is all that’s needed. Many shopping centres even allow senior walking clubs in the morning before the stores open. This provides added safety and security with even ground, good lighting, and protection from the weather.
For a senior with mobility challenges, aerobic activity is still possible. Arm exercises – with or without light weights – done in time to their favourite upbeat music can still get the heart pumping.
2. Swimming/Water Aerobics
For seniors with more mobility, strength, and range of motion, swimming or water aerobics is ideal as this type of exercise also helps with improving muscle tone while being easy on the weight-bearing joints. The added bonus of a water aerobics group setting is the benefit of staying socially connected to others in their community.
A fun way to get the heart pumping! Dancing to one’s favourite music is a great way to get a number of different health benefits including improved balance, coordination and range of motion. If done in a group setting, dancing is another wonderful way to stay connected with others.
If your elderly loved one’s balance is not ideal, they can still benefit from moving their body while in a seated position.
Exercises for Strength/Energy
Strength and energy go hand in hand. Exercises to increase muscle strength will result in improving energy which, in turn, allows seniors to better manage their day-to-day tasks.
These types of exercise require resistance to help improve both strength and energy levels. Seniors should aim to be doing these types of exercises a minimum of three times a week. To get the best health benefits, there should be a day of rest in between exercising a given group of muscles.
Top 3 Strength/Energy Exercises for Seniors
Brisk walking is also an excellent way to build lower body muscle strength in addition to improving heart and lung health. If seniors are able, climbing stairs or hills outside are excellent forms of this exercise.
Resistance training is good for body core and upper body exercises. Weights and exercise bands are both good at providing resistance. The added benefit is that a senior can start off with lighter weights/band resistance and gradually build up to heavier ones as their strength improves. Exercises for the upper body (shoulders, arms, etc) are especially important for improving range of motion and grip strength; all of which are essential for active daily tasks.
Swimming or water aerobics are also great for easy resistance training. A pool noodle can be added later when strength has improved.
Exercises for Balance
A decrease in muscle tone, issues with the inner ear and vision, some health conditions and even some medications are common reasons behind why seniors may have challenges with balance.
After a thorough assessment to identify and address underlying causes as best as possible, seniors may benefit from exercises that can help support them in reducing balance challenges.
Top 3 Balance Exercises for Seniors
Using a sturdy chair or wall for support if needed, slow leg lifts to the front, side, or back will help to strengthen and stabilize core muscles needed for balance as well as improve the tone of leg muscles. Doing these kinds of exercises in time to favourite music makes it more enjoyable.
Walk toe to heal at arms-length beside a wall (for support. The goal is to be able to put each foot directly in front of the other, and to improve balance to the point that the wall is no longer needed.
Using a sturdy chair with no armrests, seniors can practice standing up and sitting down without using their hands. This is also an excellent exercise for strengthening core postural muscles. The goal is to increase the number of full repetitions (from sitting, to standing, to sitting again) completed in two minutes.
Exercises for Flexibility
Stiffness in the body results from a lack of movement which results in decreased and weakened muscle tone, making it harder to move joints through their necessary range of motion.
The fluid that is in and around the joints contains oxygen and nutrients needed to keep the tissues healthy, and movement is the only way to ensure a regular supply. Weaker muscles aren’t able to move the joints as much, so they can also feel achy and stiff from poor nutrition which leads to a decrease in the range of motion needed for day-to-day activities.
It's important to do a few minutes of gentle cardio exercise to warm up the muscles before stretching them. Muscles stretched while “cold” may lead to tissue injury.
Top 3 Flexibility Exercises for Seniors
Basic yoga poses are wonderful to help stretch out stiffness. If mobility is an issue, chair yoga is an option. There are plenty of yoga demo videos on YouTube or DVDs.
Traditional stretches – often the ones we do just before we get out of bed – are helpful in stretching out muscles after a night’s sleep. These are safe enough as is given the body’s been kept warm under blankets. A few repetitions of flexing/pointing the feet, alternate rotating the ankles, and bending and straightening the knees help to reduce the stiffness of these joints as we first get out of bed, making those first few steps easier and safer.
As already mentioned previously, swimming is an excellent exercise for gently taking all major muscle groups through a range of motion while the water provides buoyancy to protect weight-bearing joints. The resistance of the water also helps to improve muscle strength. The use of hand paddles or pool noodles can be added later to enhance resistance.
It's important for you and/or your elderly loved one to know their limits. Starting with a few minutes and slowly increasing time, frequency, weight and ability will be solely determined by their level of interest and engagement. Allow for the days they simply don’t feel up to it. Any effort is a bonus!
Of special note, remember that these exercise suggestions apply to you as the caregiver as well. Keeping the body healthy, strong and flexible are cornerstones to providing quality care to yourself and your loved ones.
Do you need help with taking care of your elderly?
Contact Nancy to inquire about a Caregiver Action Plan assessment where all aspects of care are reviewed in order to help families create a more dynamic and positive experience for the care of their loved ones.
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Nancy Glover, a healthy aging advocate, mentors extraordinary women and men who have stepped into the challenging role of caring for their elderly spouse or parent by managing their well-being in the later stages of life. Blending first-hand expertise with practical step-by-step systems to support the needs, goals, and desires of the elderly spouse or parent, Nancy helps caregivers maneuver the complex and often challenging role with supportive advocacy and resources that equally focus on everyone’s well-being. Learn more about her at www.agingwithgrace.ca and sign up to receive timely information and strategies to empower caregivers and families in transition.