As we age, we feel less inclined to exercise, but the evidence is overwhelming: it's even more important to exercise as we get older.
It’s easy to get the impression that you don’t need to be as active when you get older because our bodies begin showing signs of strain or fatigue much quicker. Many seniors struggle with arthritis, limited range of motion, previous conditions or injuries, shortness of breath, and many other physical discomforts that discourage them from being active. Statistics show that Americans in general do not get enough exercise, and as we age, the numbers get even worse.
If It’s Hard To Do, Why Exercise At All?
Many of us think that exercise doesn’t really matter once you get to a certain age. After all, why would you need to stay active if your body is “telling” you not to? Of course, many seniors notice a decline in their physical abilities and experience discomfort when trying to do tasks that were once simple. You may think that loss of physical strength and endurance comes with age, but much of it is mostly because of inactivity.
Studies have shown that by the age of 75, a third of men and half of women tend to live completely sedentary lives. Exercising regularly enables you to take better care of yourself and promote healthy, independent living. Sedentary lifestyles promote muscle loss and reduced aerobic capacity. Therefore, regular physical activity significantly reduces the risk of disability in seniors.
Benefits of Walking For Seniors
Somewhere along the line, your physical capabilities begin to get challenged in new and unexpected ways. When you age, morning pain and stiffness become an uncomfortable reality. You may feel young on the inside, but as we age, our bodies require more attention in order to stay healthy. Our bodies are made to move, even if it hurts at first.
Regular physical activity such as walking can reduce your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, inflammation, and various types of cancer (including breast and colon cancer). For example, the American Cancer Society has found in recent research that women who walked 7 or more hours per week had a 14% lower risk of developing breast cancer, in comparison to women who walked 3 or fewer hours a week.
If you suffer from arthritis and joint pain, several studies have found that walking helps reduce symptoms, protect joints, and strengthen the muscles that support them.
Regular exercise helps control your weight, improves muscle strength and flexibility, and promotes better sleep. It can also improve your sense of balance and reduce your risk for falls. Doing stretches after walking will help minimize the risk of injury, increase blood circulation, improve balance and coordination, and enhance muscle control. If you’re worried about falling, or have previous conditions or injuries that would give you cause for concern, a home caregiver can help you.
An interesting report by the Lifestyle Interventions and Independence for Elders was recently published in the journal of the American Medical Association, showing evidence that regular exercise has major benefits for seniors. The study included men and women between the ages of 70 and 89, and found that the participants who regularly exercised were 28% less likely to develop a physical disability.
In a comprehensive 23 year long study by the Department of Physical Education at San Diego State University, researchers observed a group of middle-aged men who exercised daily and a group who exercised for 5 years but then stopped. The study found that men who did not exercise regularly lost 41% of their aerobic power, while those who did only lost a mere 13%. They also found that 60% of those who didn’t exercise developed high blood pressure, while on the other hand, none of the men who exercised did. In fact, researchers found that the blood pressure of men who exercised was 25% lower than the average for men their age.
Benefits For The Brain
Our serotonin levels, which regulate our mood, appetite, sleep, and blood pressure, decrease with age. Less serotonin often means an increase in the rate of anxiety and depression. However, daily walks can help fight back and boost your brain health. Exercise increases serotonin levels and also reduces the levels of cortisol, our stress hormone. It releases chemicals in the brain that promote the growth of new blood vessels and brain cells.
Exercise indirectly helps your memory and thinking because it improves mood and sleep while reducing stress and anxiety, which are areas that frequently contribute to cognitive impairment. According to Harvard research, the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are larger in people who exercise. Even moderate, low impact exercise such as walking will reduce stress, allowing for improved cognitive function.
Research has shown a strong connection between poor cardiovascular health and a decline in cognitive function. Walking regularly can help stimulate blood flow that benefits your heart and your brain. Daily walks can also help prevent or slow down dementia.
Taking Empowering Steps Forward
Walking improves your mood, but it also boosts your sense of worth, independence, and vitality. Research has shown that regular physical activity reduces clinical depression. As we age and begin to feel like a burden to our families or society, it’s important to maintain aspects of our independence and ability to enjoy simple pleasures. Walking can be a very empowering act for seniors who have struggled to feel like contributing members of society. It helps build strength and confidence. If you need to go somewhere, even if it’s close, it’s empowering to know that you can do it.
Furthermore, getting out and walking helps seniors feel integrated in their communities. If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, going on daily short walks can help foster connections with neighbors. Inviting a friend or family member to go on walks will also help keep you feeling motivated and connected. A home caregiver can be available for assistance.
How To Stay Active
Set a goal to walk every day and look for opportunities to be active every chance you get. Start slow, walk with your head up, and try to maintain good posture. Even 5-10 minutes of walking is enough to get going. Investing in a good pair of walking shoes will help you feel more comfortable and help minimize aches. You can track your progress with a pedometer, which counts your steps and measures the distance you walk.
If you don’t have a very good fitness level, do not let this discourage you. It will improve and starting with even 5 minutes more walking a day will help. Do whatever works for you until you feel comfortable doing more. You should eventually aim to get 30 minutes of walking every day, which can also be broken up into three 10-minute power walks. It’s important to gently stretch after walking.
If you need motivation to get you out of the house, find a walking partner. Whether or not you need physical assistance, home caregivers make great walking partners and can help keep you motivated. Additionally, if you’re working with a home caregiver, you can request that walking be included as part of your care plan.
Get a Healthy Dose of Nature
Adding the benefits of nature to regular exercise increases the positive effects on our health. Did you know that in 1982, Japan made “forest bathing” a part of their national public health program? Forest bathing simply means being around trees. It has been proven to reduce the production of stress hormones, lower blood pressure, improve working memory, boost the immune system, and improve your overall wellbeing.
The essential oils found in trees, plants, and wood in forests doesn’t just make the air smell nicer, the phytoncides you inhale help strengthen your body’s immune system. Smelling that kind of fresh air and walking around nature also helps you practice mindfulness and comes with other mental health benefits. Researchers have found that forest bathing reduces depression and increases vitality; in other words, being around nature makes you feel more alive. Even if you live in the city, finding greenery and getting exposure to trees can significantly reduce stress levels.
In general, spending time in nature has been associated with improved emotion and mood regulation. Walking is a low impact aerobic activity which increases the production of serotonin and dopamine — the happy hormones — in our bodies. It also helps decrease the amount of cortisol in your body, a stress hormone. Getting regular time in the sun is also important for getting enough vitamin D, which improves calcium absorption, bone health, and boosts your immune system.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are many hikes in and around the cities that are accessible by seniors and people with disabilities. For example, the roads in the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco are closed on Sundays so that people can enjoy leisurely walks and activities in the park.
Get the Support You Need with Home Caregiving
As we age, our joints and range of motion become much more limited. We are also a lot less active which eventually leads to loss of muscle strength and flexibility. Walking is a great way to get regular exercise, lubricate joints, and strengthen mobility in seniors. If you struggle with past conditions or injuries, you can still get the benefits of walking with the support from a home caregiver.