15 Myths about exercise and older adults
Exercise can help make you stronger, prevent bone loss, improve balance and coordination, lift your mood, boost your memory, and ease the symptoms of many chronic conditions. “Exercise is almost always good for people of any age,” says Chhanda Dutta, PhD, chief of the Clinical Gerontology Branch at the National Institute on Aging.
There is no way to stop the decline of the physical systems of the body, but the changes are so gradual that people adjust to them over their lifespan. Research has found that those people who understand the physical, social and psychological changes that occur with ageing are likely to have high levels of life satisfaction. Importantly, older people do not expect to have the same level of physical fitness as in younger years but can still feel satisfied about their health.
Here are some common myths that stop older people from exercising, along with a great case study that has found physical activity to show improvement in brain volume, and cut Alzheimer’s risk in half.
Exercise Myth #1: Trying to exercise and get healthy is pointless – decline in old age is inevitable
“There’s a powerful myth that getting older means getting decrepit,” says Dutta. “It’s not true. Some people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s are out there running marathons and becoming bodybuilders.” A lot of the symptoms that we associate with old age – such as weakness and loss of balance – are actually symptoms of inactivity, not age, says Alicia Arbaje, MD, MPH, assistant professor of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. Exercise improves more than your physical health. It can also boost memory and help prevent dementia. Also, it can help you maintain your independence and your way of life. If you stay strong and agile as you age, you’ll be more able to keep doing the things you enjoy and less likely to need help.
Exercise Myth #2: Exercise isn’t safe for someone my age – I don’t want to fall and injure myself
Studies show that exercise can in fact reduce your chances of a fall. Exercise builds strength, balance, and agility. Exercises like tai chi may be especially helpful in improving balance. Worried about osteoporosis and weak bones? One of the best ways to strengthen them is with regular exercise.
Exercise Myth #3: Since I’m older, I need to check with my doctor before I exercise
If you have a medical condition or any unexplained symptoms or you haven’t had a physical in a long time, check with your doctor before you start exercising. Otherwise, go ahead. “People don’t need to check with a doctor before they exercise just because they’re older,” says Dutta. Just go slowly and don’t overdo it.
Exercise Myth #4: I’m sick, so I shouldn’t exercise
On the contrary, if you have a chronic health problem – such as arthritis, diabetes, or heart disease – exercise is almost certainly a good idea. Check with a doctor first, but exercise will probably help. “Exercise is almost like a silver bullet for lots of health problems,” says Arbaje. “For many people, exercise can do as much if not better than the 5 to 10 medications they take every day.”
Exercise Myth #5: I’m afraid I might have a heart attack
We’ve all heard about people who had heart attacks while exercising. It can happen. However, the many health benefits of exercise far exceed the small risk. “Being a couch potato is actually more dangerous than being physically active,” says Dutta. “That’s true for the risk of heart disease and many other conditions.”
Exercise Myth #6: I’ve never really exercised, it’s too late to make a difference in my health
This mindset is absolutely not true. It really is never too late to start exercising and reaping the benefits. Studies have found that even in people in their nineties living in nursing homes, starting an exercise routine can boost muscle strength. Other research shows that starting exercise late in life can still cut the risk of health problems – such as diabetes – and improve symptoms. “It really is never too late to start exercising and reaping the benefits,” says Dutta. And as mentioned in Exercise Myth 1; exercise improves physical health, boosts memory and helps prevent dementia. It also helps you maintain your independence and your way of life.
Exercise Myth #7: Exercise will hurt my joints.
If you’re in chronic pain from arthritis, exercising may seem too painful. Here’s a counterintuitive fact: studies show that exercising helps with arthritis pain. One study of people over age 60 with knee arthritis found that those who exercised more had less pain and better joint function.
Exercise Myth #8: Going for a brisk walk every day pretty much covers my exercise needs
Walking is a great way to exercise and in no way, should it be discouraged. However, some might say this is only part of a broader exercise routine. For example, a complete exercise program for seniors should include:
- aerobic activities (those that make the heart pump faster, such as brisk walking, swimming, dancing or aerobics-type classes)
- muscle strengthening activities, such as lifting weights or using a resistance band
- flexibility exercises such as stretches or yoga
- exercises that improve our sense of balance, such as tai chi
Remember that formal exercise isn’t the only beneficial activity. Gardening, dancing, active video games, sports, and even house cleaning all provide some exercise.
Exercise Myth #9: I don’t have time
This is a myth that’s common in all age groups. Experts recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. That might sound like a lot. Actually, it’s only a little over 20 minutes a day. What’s more, you don’t have to do it all in one chunk. You can split it up. For instance, take a 10-minute walk in the morning and pedal on a stationary bike for 15 minutes in the evening – you’re done.
Exercise Myth #10: I’m disabled, so I can’t exercise
“A disability can make exercise challenging, but there really is no excuse for not doing some sort of exercise,” says Arbaje. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can use your arms to get an aerobic workout and build strength. Even people who are bedridden can find ways to exercise, she says. Talk to a doctor or a physical therapist about ways you can modify exercises to work around your disability.
Exercise Myth #11: I can’t afford it – I don’t have the budget to join a gym or buy equipment
Gym memberships and home treadmills can be expensive. Still, that’s no reason to skip exercising, Dutta says. You can exercise for free. Walking doesn’t cost anything. Consider free demonstration classes at your local senior center. If you want to lift weights at home, use soup cans or milk jugs filled with sand. Use your dining room chair for exercises that improve balance and flexibility. If you have a health problem, insurance may cover a few sessions with a physical trainer or an occupational therapist, says Arbaje. There are lots of ways to get fit at low or no cost.
Exercise Myth #12: I’ve had the same exercise routine for years, and I don’t need to change it
If you’ve been exercising for years, that’s fantastic! And whilst it makes sense to maintain your current exercise routine around the idea of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, it’s also important to understand that your fitness may need to change as you grow older, depending on any health conditions. Some activities may no longer be as safe for your body, as they once were; you might need to switch to low-impact, or lower-intensity or otherwise modified exercise. And you might not be covering all the bases to achieve a complete fitness routine. It’s worthwhile seeking an exercise review, just as you’d have your doctor review your health or medications.
Exercise Myth #13: Gyms are for young people
“The gym scene can be intimidating for older people,” says Dutta. Look to see if gyms in your area have offerings for seniors or people new to exercise. If you’re retired, try going in the middle of the day, so you can avoid the before and after-work rush. “Find an environment where you feel comfortable exercising,” says Arbaje.
Exercise Myth #14: Exercise is boring
If exercise is boring, you’re not doing it right. Exercise doesn’t even have to feel like exercise. Remember that any physical activity counts. Whether it’s catching up with a friend while you walk the mall, or taking a dance class, or chasing your grandchildren, or bowling, or raking, or gardening, or volunteering at your local school system or park, its physical activity. The key is to figure out something you enjoy doing and then do it. When you get tired of it, try something new. “The type of exercise doesn’t matter,” says Arbaje. “The best exercise is the one that you actually do.”
Exercise Myth #15: It’s not safe for people with Alzheimer’s disease to exercise
Not true, physical activity is of great benefit to people with memory loss. It reduces pain, improves sleep, increases the appetite, and decreases agitation and wandering. It may even slow the progression of the disease. However, the exercise routine may need to be modified to keep them safe if one has Alzheimer’s disease or a related condition. It’s important to ask your loved one’s doctor about exercise classes for people with dementia. And if you’re a caregiver, try exercising with your loved one – it could do you both good.
Case Study: Different kinds of physical activity shown to improve brain volume, cut Alzheimer’s risk in half
March 2016. A recent study shows that a variety of physical activities from walking to gardening and dancing can improve brain volume and cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 50%.
This research, conducted by investigators at UCLA Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh, is the first to show that virtually any type of aerobic physical activity can improve
brain structure and reduce Alzheimer’s risk. The study, funded by the National Institute of Aging, was published on March 11 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The results of the analysis showed that increasing physical activity was correlated with larger brain volumes in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes including the hippocampus. Individuals experiencing this brain benefit from increasing their physical activity experienced a 50% reduction in their risk of Alzheimer’s dementia. Of the roughly 25% in the sample who had mild cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s, increasing physical activity also benefitted their brain volumes.
George Perry, PhD, Editor in Chief of Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, added, “Currently the greatest promise in Alzheimer’s disease research is lifestyle intervention including increased exercise. This study presents a landmark study that links exercise to increases in grey matter and opens the field of lifestyle intervention to objective biological measurement.”
– Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services. QLD Government. Ageing Myth and Reality. Read article
– Queensland Government Health, Ageing with vitality, Chapter 4; 73-77. Read article
– Caring Strategies. Top 10 Myths About Seniors and Exercise. 12 July, 2017. J Tauss. Read article
Read more exercising when you’re 60+ and staying healthy
Volume Two explains why looking after your health and wellbeing is an essential part of living a long and fruitful life. As we age, the easier it becomes to neglect our health, resort to bad habits and struggle with a routine of exercise. The importance of these topics are reinforced through case studies, research and scientific support from industry experts. In addition to uncovering the myths behind exercise, alcohol and diet. Read more on Volume Two
Volume 2 entitled “Looking after your health & well-being after 60” covers 37 pages on Exercising when you’re over 60 and Staying healthy over 60. Below are some of the topics we explore for chapter 2.1, Exercising when you’re over 60:
- What are the benefits of being active daily?
- Staying fit through exercise
- Setting goals and logging achievements
- Tips to setting a schedule and pushing yourself
- Finding your correct training range for endurance exercises
- Examples of physical activity that meet the guidelines
- Infographic: Physical activity benefits for adults and older adults
- Ways to improve your endurance and measure your effort
- Words of caution if you’ve been inactive for some time
- Case Study: Different kinds of physical activity shown to improve brain volume, cut Alzheimer’s risk in half
- Case Study: Exercise curbs your hunger, study shows
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