It is a commonly known fact that regular exercise and getting enough physical activity is an integral part of maximizing an individual’s quality of life, regardless of age or level of fitness. Challenging the body from a physical standpoint is responsible for a long list of benefits that improve the functional capacity of almost every aspect of human anatomy.
With regards to the older population, consistent exercise becomes even more imperative. Due to a number of age related changes such as loss of muscle mass, decreased skeletal strength and balance and even changes in cognitive function, older individuals have a significant risk of losing their independence and quality of life without making an effort to maintain physical fitness.
In this article, we are going to break down three components of an effective and manageable fitness plan for the older individual. While all three of the components included in this plan apply to general fitness at every age, we will illustrate important modifications that may be required to better suit the aging population.
A decrease in skeletal muscle mass can be one of the most debilitating factors that occurs with the aging process. Lean muscle tissue not only translates to increased strength and mobility, but also significantly decreases the chance of an individual becoming obese.
For the older population, resistance training should still be a challenging and fairly exerting task, with a slight shift in how this is accomplished. Although there are always outliers to every rule, lifting weights later on in life should not be about breaking personal records and putting on large amounts of muscle mass. Instead, the focus should be on choosing exercises and repetition schemes that place minimal stress on the joints.
Due to the wear and tear of everyday life, a large percentage of older individuals display significant degradation of the shoulders, hips, and knees. Finding the balance between challenging the muscular system enough to maintain its lean muscle tissue while mitigating stress to the joints and injury risks is key.
When outlining a resistance-training plan for the older individual, there is no need to completely reinvent the wheel pertaining movement patterns and unique exercises.
However, there should be an emphasis on lifting lighter weights for relatively high repetitions. Furthermore, when forms of resistance can be utilized for the same exercise, such as replacing a dumbbell for a resistance band, this should be done.
Much like resistance training, maintaining cardiovascular fitness for the older individual should focus on low impact activities that still cause the heart rate to become elevated for an extended period of time.
When doing cardio, it is important to keep in mind that the purpose is to improve the function of the heart. Therefore, the exact activity isn’t nearly as important as increasing the heart rate.
If available, one of the most efficacious forms of cardiovascular training for the older population is in the aquatic setting. Due to the greatly reduced gravity underwater, the body is free to perform at any level of intensity with little to no stress on the spine and joints of the extremities.
If more traditional cardio is preferred, these activities can still be adapted to fit the aforementioned requirements for older people. Instead of jogging or sprinting on asphalt or concrete, walking at a brisk pace, and increasing the overall distance and/or time will suffice.
If possible, opt for a softer surface such as sand or grass. Furthermore, any available cardio equipment such as an elliptical machine or stationary bike can provide cardiovascular benefits while minimizing joint stress.
Rest & Recovery
The biggest factor that goes into physical fitness is the extent to which an individual can recover. For older individuals, the body is significantly less adept at repairing itself from even the beneficial stress caused by exercise. With this in mind, frequency and intensity are two important factors to consider.
Although being active every single day is beneficial for older people, actually performing a moderate-high intensity exercise routine seven days a week is probably not the way to go. While there is no absolute rule when it comes to finding a balance between rest/exercise, making a habit of working out three days a week is a great middle ground.
Intensity of exercise should not be the focus of a routine for the older population. As previously mentioned, the aging body does not recover as well. Given that high intensity exercise obviously takes longer to recover from, the combination does not work well with seniors. Furthermore, the focus of exercise later in life is about maximizing mobility and overall function.
As the intensity of exercise increases, so does the risk of serious injury. This is completely counterintuitive to the overall goal. Regular doses of low-moderate intensity exercise performed consistently are effective at managing the risk/reward situation in the older population.