Use It, Don’t Lose It: Keeping Seniors Active

You’re only as old as you feel, as the saying goes. And there appears to be a great deal of truth contained in that casual remark.

September is National Aging Awareness month, an observance aimed at focusing attention on the positive aspects of growing older.1 And one of the most positive aspects of growing older is being able to stay in shape to enjoy our longevity.

Physical strength and flexibility begin to decline with age, but exercise can help counter those losses. And perhaps best of all, one can start to get in better shape at any age. No matter what our age, a stronger person is a safer person.

Studies at Tufts University have shown that the risk of injury in the elderly is associated with weak muscles.2 About 40% of people over age 55 fall at least once each year. With injury comes the need for assistance with daily activities and a loss of independence can cut down on the quality of a person’s life.

A balanced muscular system is important for everyone, but even more so for seniors for the purpose of injury prevention. If the muscles and their antagonists are not equally strong, and equally flexible, the chance of injury is greater. Unless an effort is made to determine the causes of these imbalances and correct them, the stronger muscles become stronger, the weaker muscles become weaker, and the net imbalance widens.

In addition to falls that can result from an unbalanced musculature and lack of flexibility, overuse injuries are very common among seniors who have an unbalanced muscular system. As the name suggests, such injuries develop over time and can take time to correct.

Many of the clinical problems experienced categorically among older people appear to relate more to muscle strength than to the lack of aerobic activity. Most people, even those who are sedentary, have relatively good arm strength since they use their arms in everyday life. Among seniors, a loss of leg strength is often more pronounced than arm strength. Developing leg strength should be a consideration for any training prescription.

Much research to date has shown that strength training for seniors increases aerobic capacity, cardiorespiratory fitness and flexibility as well as significant increases in leg muscle size and strength. For anyone concerned about putting on too much muscle, it’s always important to remind him or her of the related benefits of strength training. Any increase in lean muscle tissue also causes the metabolic rate to increase. Because muscle tissue burns more calories at rest than does fat tissue, more muscle tissues means a more efficient metabolism.

When working with older clients, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that:

  • It may take them more time to process new information.
  • Older adults often have a greater need for repetition of new information.
  • Like any other population, it’s necessary to keep them interested and motivated. Creativity is key. For resistance training, it’s possible to apply the same principles used in aerobics classes. Basic equipment such as stability balls, chairs, resistance bands, dumbbells, machines, basketballs, water workouts, etc. can go a long way when using the imagination.

Staying active and independent means more than just going to the gym, of course. Walking, swimming, doing yard work, gardening, golfing, and even dancing are a few of the common favorites. After all, if you can function independently regardless of age, you can’t really be ‘old’, can you?


References

1. http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/features/health-highlights-september-healthy-aging-month

2. Fiatarone, Maria A., and William J. Evans. “11 The Etiology and Reversibility of Muscle Dysfunction in the Aged.” Journal of Gerontology 48.Special Issue (1993): 77-83.

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NFPT Staff Writers contribute in various ways to the NFPT blog