Move a Little More for Better Health


Senior women walking in autumn

We know we should exercise. But watching Olympic athletes run laps or lift huge weights can make us feel intimidated! That looks like hard work! Exercise certainly can feel like a chore. Experts from the American College of Sports Medicine suggested one reason: school gym class! They interviewed older people who said that back in the day, their PE classes turned them off exercise for life. They recalled boring calisthenics, yelling teachers, uncomfortable comparisons with others, even bullying in the locker room.

PE teachers today use much better methods to motivate kids—but meanwhile, grandparents might need to overcome the notion that physical fitness is an unpleasant obligation that they were quick to abandon once they weren't being graded.

There's good news! For one thing, a host of studies show that older adults can gain a great deal of benefit even from small amounts of exercise. Studies confirm that every time we choose to move rather than sit, it really helps. Here's what the experts say:

Little actions build a bigger brain. Researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that "lifestyle physical activity"—things we do during the day that we might not think of as exercise, such as cleaning the house, shopping, gardening or walking the dog—can increase the amount of gray matter in our brains. Gray matter is important for thinking, memory and speech. Said lead author Shannon Holloway, "More gray matter is associated with better cognitive function, while decreases in gray matter are associated with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias."

Moderate activities are good for the heart. It doesn't take a rigorous workout to protect the hearts of older adults. Dr. Sangeeta Lachman, a cardiologist at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, conducted a study on 25,000 older adults. "Elderly people who were moderately inactive had a 14 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular events compared to those who were completely inactive," she told the European Society of Cardiology. "This suggests that even modest levels of physical activity are beneficial to heart health. Elderly people should be encouraged to at least do low-intensity physical activities, such as walking, gardening, and housework."

Move around to lengthen life. A study published by the American Geriatrics Society showed that these types of everyday activities can even lower our risk of early death. "Every movement counts," said senior author Andrea LaCroix, Ph.D. "A lot of what we do on a daily basis is improving our health, such as walking to the mailbox, strolling around the neighborhood, folding clothes and straightening up the house," said LaCroix, who is a professor at University of California San Diego. "We don't have to be running marathons to stay healthy. The paradigm needs to shift when we think about being active."

A bit here, a bit there…it all adds up. Studies show that several shorter workouts every day can be just as effective as a longer session. Tufts University experts helped a group of sedentary older adults ramp up their activity level with some of the daily activities mentioned above. "Adding 48 minutes of moderate exercise per week is associated with improvements in overall physical functioning and decreases in risks of immobility in older adults who are sedentary," the researchers reported.

Step one: Get off the couch. Why are these small activities so beneficial? Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden say a big factor is that when we're doing them, we aren't sitting! Sitting is so bad for our bodies and minds. The study authors found that replacing half an hour of sedentary activities with low-level exercise such as the activities mentioned above, or even just standing, can reduce the risk of a fatal heart disease by 24%. People who are unable to stand can also benefit by activities that give the upper body a workout. Tai chi and yoga also offer a surprising amount of strength building, and help prevent falls.

There’s an exercise plan for people of every ability. If you are living with mobility challenges, vision loss or memory problems, ask your doctor about a program of adapted activities. Get a "prescription" for the amount and type of exercise that is right for your overall health, including any health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or arthritis, that might make certain motions and activities unsafe for you. Before you sign up for an exercise class or gym membership, be sure the instructors are qualified for your needs. If you live in a senior living community, take part in the exercise program offered there, following guidelines for social distancing at this time.

Source: IlluminAge