Encourage Exercise and Physical Activity

Exercise is one of the few things we can do to elongate our lives and increase the quality as well.

Moving our bodies, whether by taking a walk around the block or playing tennis at the park, is vital to our overall health. Numerous studies have touted the importance of being physically fit, strong, and flexible. However, the benefits of exercise only grow as we get older. For seniors especially, physical activity can lead to happier, healthier, and safer older adults.

Benefits of Exercise in Seniors

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seniors who exercise regularly can reduce their risk for falls and increase the chance to live at home for longer independently. Regular exercise can also improve flexibility, decrease feelings of depression, and even increase range of motion in otherwise stiff joints.

Barriers (and Solutions) to Regular Exercise

Seniors can be resistant to adopting a regular exercise routine for a variety of reasons. Inactivity increases with age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that by the age of 75, one in three men and one in two women participate in no physical activity. This inactivity quickly leads to decreased strength, flexibility and endurance, which are all needed in activities of daily living such as getting in and out of the shower safely. Fortunately, you can begin a daily exercise program at any age and see the benefits. You just have to get moving.

Like their younger counterparts, some seniors feel unmotivated to make daily exercise a priority. Fortunately, running a marathon is not required in order to reap benefits of being physically active. Instead, daily range of motion exercises or walks around the neighborhood offer the perfect amount of exercise for adults over the age of 60.

Unmotivated seniors can begin slowly by adding 15 minutes of daily activity into their regular schedule. Take a walk before lunch, cue up a quick yoga video on YouTube after a morning cup of coffee. Incorporating movement into a daily schedule encourages the change to become a positive habit.

Seniors can also resist exercise because of chronic pain issues. It certainly is difficult to begin an exercise program when you are in constant pain, but for many chronic conditions, exercise is the key to feeling better. According to the Arthritis Foundation, people with osteoarthritis can enjoy decreased pain and increased joint movement with a consistent exercise program. In fact, exercise is considered the best non-drug alternative to combatting stiffness and pain that accompany arthritis. Other chronic pain conditions have similar outcomes.

If your aging loved one lives with chronic pain, encouraging exercise can seem like an impossible task. However, try to encourage movement during their best time of day, like in the late morning or after a pain medication has taken effect. You can also search for exercise classes in the area that focus on movements for specific conditions, like arthritis or Parkinson’s disease. The comradery and support from peers living with the same condition can make exercise class even more enjoyable.

Getting Started

If you want your older loved one to get more active, there are a few strategies you can use to encourage the healthy behavior. First, talk to the doctor. There are some medical conditions that can make certain types of movement or exercise dangerous. For example, people who have had hip surgery may want to avoid certain hip mobility exercises. A quick call to the doctor’s office can provide precautions you should keep in mind.

Next, assure the senior has proper foot attire. Ill fitting or inappropriate shoes can lead to injury and pain. Search for a supportive tennis shoe that fits well and will prevent slipping or falls.

When possible, offer to do physical activity during your visits. Instead of having your evening visit in the living room, take a walk on a favorite trail together. Try taking a tai chi class together via a YouTube video you find with a quick online search. Drive to the Silver Sneakers exercise class at the park district together and stick around to participate as well. Your time moving with your loved one will not only be fun and supportive, you can also see a lot about their health and mobility by observing them during exercise.

Exercise is always more fun with a friend, and having that accountability means an increased participation rate. You can find classes that are geared to seniors throughout your town, including at the park district, senior center, or library. Many hospitals, especially those with outpatient rehab services, offer senior specific classes including aquatic groups for participants with joint pain or stiffness.

Exercise classes are fun, but not for everyone. Some people prefer to exercise by walking, gardening, or swimming on their own. If this pertains to your situation, don’t discount this movement but instead encourage it. Treat your loved one to a new planter or new pair of goggles as a simple sign that you support their healthy habits. If you know your loved one prefers independent exercise, but hasn’t found an activity they love, work on finding that new activity together. Activities like birdwatching or geocaching require lots of walking and can be the perfect blend of movement and nature. Try these activities out together until they find a few they love and will pursue independently on their own.

As you notice progress, praise your loved one for their commitment. If you are around after an exercise session, ask how they are feeling. As it is with most of us, exercise makes us feel great immediately afterward. Capitalize on this exercise “high” by pointing it out.

Finally, a recommendation for outpatient physical therapy from the doctor can be a wonderful first step into exercise for a senior who is otherwise inactive. Physical therapist appointments offer practice and education, and they give recommendations for exercises to complete throughout the week between sessions. Inactive seniors who are not sure where to start can catch the exercise bug in the therapy gym and more importantly, learn how to do it safely.

Don’t give up hope that your loved one can enjoy the benefits of regular exercise. Just be sure they are healthy enough to pursue activity and then help them find movement that they love. After a few months of consistent activity, they will notice the positive difference.

  • Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.) Exercises for arthritis. Retrieved from https://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/exercise/

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1999, November 17). Physical activity and health: A report of the Surgeon General. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/olderad.htm

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