So, you’re 55, or maybe 65, 75, or even 85. You already know all the benefits of exercise, and you’ve tried — you have really tried — to be active. You take a daily walk once a week when it’s not raining, but you know that’s not really enough. Friends, relatives, and your doctor — they all say, “Get some exercise!”
So, a little while back, you tried a class. You tried several. Different instructors even. But there is one small problem: You hate it! A lot of exercise classes are far from ideal for older adults (even when they’re supposedly for older adults!).
What to do? Chances are, you’ve stopped going…or you will soon. You may not be able to say why you hate that class, but it’s likely that when you read through this list, you’ll see yourself at least once!
A dreadful list, isn’t it? Not something the fitness industry can be proud of, that’s for sure.
But there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is obvious: these concerns are tough to overcome.
The good news is, if you can find the right class and the right instructor, you will go to class — and without complaint.
It’s been my experience that most older adults understand that exercise is good for them, but those seven deadly reasons prevent them from doing what they know is best for their body.
What you need is compelling evidence that this exercising stuff is really worth it. And what difference will it make? The research is out there, and the evidence is solid: exercise does keep us healthier, improves the quality of our lives, and keeps us living on our own longer. Here are seven good (evidence-based) reasons you’ll be glad that you choose to exercise:
In health research, doctors attempt to quantify a quality-of-life measurement for an average individual.1
Through discussions with many patients of all ages, they rate on a scale of one-to-ten a person’s physical and mental well-being.
Using such a scale in an Oklahoma study, healthy older adults who participated regularly in moderate physical activity for at least an hour per week had a higher quality-of-life measurement than those who did not exercise.2
The exercisers felt that they led an independent lifestyle.
Take note: one hour per week! That’s not much commitment.
“No pain, no gain” is a myth! Don’t believe it! Today’s research is unequivocal: exercise is surprisingly efficient, even building muscle, and even moderate exercise does make a difference,. One study assessed two groups of older adults: one group participated in a low-intensity exercise program; the other group did only relaxation exercises. On all assessments, both physical and mental, the exercise group did better than the relaxation group.3
If you are concerned about the risks of starting exercise, you can begin at low intensity and gradually increase your skill level. Most studies suggest that classes for older adults should emphasize moderate-intensity aerobics, muscle-strengthening, balance, and flexibility, as well as instruction on how to avoid injury.45
Sedentariness is unhealthy. If we aren’t active, we lose muscle strength — a minuscule amount each day. Stronger muscles mean we can lengthen independent living considerably. Simple free-weight exercises can improve the odds against muscle loss.
Researchers decided to measure just the hand-grip strength of women over 60. Some women were exercising; some were not. They discovered that non-exercising women lost grip strength at the rate of nearly 3% per year. But physically active women lost much less.6
If hand-grip strength can be improved and/or maintained by simply exercising, you can easily apply this principle to all the muscles. My husband’s grandmother decided, in her late 80’s, that she did not want to walk any more. Within weeks she was bedridden. If we do not use our muscles, they will weaken. It is inevitable.
Older adults fear falling. If they break a bone, they may be disabled, in pain, or both, for months. A fall means loss of independence.
More than 20% of participants in a recent study of older adults said they had fallen twice or more in the previous year. About one-third said it was likely they would fall during the upcoming year, yet most believed there wasn’t any way that they could prevent a fall. None of them had even heard of balance training!
Attempting to educate older adults to the advantages of physical activity in preventing falls, researchers explained to the participants of a study that the purpose of balance training was to do “physical activities every day to build up the strength in legs and body and improve balance.” Lead author of the research, Lucy Yardley, Ph.D., concluded this: “Few older people are aware of strength and balance training, or [know] that balance can be improved.”7
The ability to get up from a chair and sit down without assistance requires lower body strength, balance and coordination. Something as simple as a daily chair-stand exercise can improve balance.8
Older adults may put up with a wide range of medical conditions, but research shows that in nearly all cases, improvements can be made, even in four of the greatest challenges older adults face: diabetes, Alzheimer’s, stroke, and heart disease.
In a very large study of diabetics, doctors compared exercise-only treatments with self-management treatments. Participants who exercised improved their blood glucose twice as much as those who did not. Vicki Conn, PhD., head of the research, said: “It doesn’t matter how overweight you are or how poor your current blood glucose..., the improvements from exercise [are] equal across the board.” In Australia, another research team concluded the very same thing and added: exercise “may be able to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.”9
The French studied over 100 Alzheimer’s patients who attended an exercise program for one hour twice a week. This simple program “led to a significantly slower decline in daily living activities in patients...than routine medical care.”10 That’s just two hours a week of exercise to make a difference!
In another study of more than 60 healthy adults over 85 years of age, researchers discovered that after almost five years, women who exercised more than four hours per week had a nearly 90% reduced risk of cognitive impairment compared to less-active women.11
A United Kingdom study worked with more than 60 people over 70 years of age who had a stroke but were still mobile. Participants exercised three times a week for twelve weeks: endurance and strength training along with relaxation were included. The result “Exercise training for ambulatory stroke patients was not only possible, but it could also lead to the patients feeling much better about themselves.”12
And finally, the results of several studies show that people who start regular physical activity after a heart attack have better rates of survival and quality of life than those who don’t.13
Exercise is one of a few almost foolproof non-drug treatments for depression and anxiety (therapeutic massage is another great example). Exercise can raise endorphins which improve your mood. One participant walked into my fitness class one morning and handed me her ticket, saying, “Here I am. Do your magic.” At the end of class, she told me her mood had improved 100%. I know this can happen because I have experienced it many times myself.
And here’s another plus for exercise: a combination of aerobic activity, strength training, and flexibility exercises may reduce medication dependence while maintaining functional independence and improving quality of life.14
There is no research (yet) that suggests that men15 or women16 have a health advantage because they exercise. However, we know that how we age is most likely related to “nutrition, stress, smoking, and physical activity.”17 One study concluded, “It is important to emphasize that it takes relatively moderate levels of physical activity — like brisk walking — to attain the associated health benefits.Certainly, one does not need to be a marathon runner. This is the message that we need to convey to the public” (my italics).18
You know why you don’t go to class, but you know you should. To resolve the paradox, you must find a class that’s right for you. At the very least, make sure your class has these three elements:
Once you’ve chosen a class, attend at least five sessions before you give up. It’s OK to keep looking until you find the class that you know is the right “fit” for you. Do all the exercises that you can, but don’t worry if you can’t do everything. Learn from the other class participants and from the instructor.
Good luck….and happy exercising!