The importance of exercise in later life

Tailored programs offer seniors – including aged care recipients – the greatest benefits, writes Dr Rachelle Sultana.

Exercise and physical activity have profound health benefits for people of all ages including older adults. Studies have proven that regular exercise may lower a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

For older adults, boosting the amount of regular exercise may also help maintain motor function, improve mental health, and prevent dementia. 

At the same time around 80 per cent of older Australians report a chronic health condition, with 28 per cent reporting having three or more. The most common health problems in the elderly in Australia include:

  • arthritis – around 1.8 million people are diagnosed with this condition, making it the most pervasive musculoskeletal issue
  • cardiovascular disease – more than 700,000 older Australians over 65 have one or more heart, vascular disease, or stroke-related conditions
  • chronic kidney disease – this includes all conditions that affect the kidney’s ability to filter and remove waste products from the blood
  • respiratory conditions – these include COPD, a chronic respiratory disease characterised by obstruction to the airflow that affects mostly people from middle-age onward
  • dementia – characterised by impairment of brain function, this brain condition affects around 400,000 older Australians
  • diabetes – a chronic condition arising from the high levels of glucose in the blood and the body’s inability to produce or use the hormone insulin. The prevalence of diabetes among older adults aged 65 and above is about 3 times higher compared to the age group of 45-54
  • mental health – this is comprised of mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, affective disorders such as depression, psychotic disorders, and substance use disorders.

Ideal exercises for older adults

Dr Rachelle Sultana

For those aged 65 years and above, the Australian guidelines call for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a day. If someone hasn’t exercised in a while, 30 minutes can be difficult to start. A good option is to begin with two 10-minute sessions a day, increasing to 15 minutes twice a day after two-three weeks.

However, the best option is to consult a health professional such as an exercise physiologist before embarking on an exercise program, particularly for those who have been sedentary or have chronic health issues.

An EP will work with an individual to assess their current health condition, develop an appropriate exercise program tailored to their needs and health, and monitor their progress. 

Typical exercise options

Moderate-intensity cardiovascular activities include:

  • brisk walking
  • swimming
  • walking in between holes while golfing
  • cycling
  • gym or water aerobics
  • tennis
  • house chores such as gardening, vacuuming and cleaning.

Strength training activities build up muscle and bone strength. These include:

  • resistance training – using body weight, free weights, machines, and resistance bands
  • stair climbing
  • tasks that involve lifting and carrying
  • calisthenics such as sit-ups and push-ups
  • house chores – moderate-intensity yard work.

Flexibility exercises can help boost your flexibility and help you move easily. Options include:

  • stretching exercises – especially helpful to help keep you limber and avoid injuries post-workout
  • other activities that incorporate flexibility training such as Tai Chi, Qigong, yoga, and dancing.

Balancing activities that can aid in boosting your balance to prevent falls include:

  • full and half-squats
  • side leg raises
  • heel raises.

Benefits of tailored exercise

Aside from getting enough regular physical activity, there is also merit in customised exercise programs for older adults including those receiving aged care.

A key benefit of individualised exercise routines is the understanding that everyone is different and thus would benefit from a program appropriate to their differing needs and health conditions. 

Another advantage of tailored exercise is its ability to help develop regular exercise habits. For older adults, regular exercise is important in maintaining functional capacity, mobility, and independence. Tailoring exercise to an individual’s needs and condition can help them keep up an exercise program long term, which in turn assists with ongoing independence.

Independence benefits both physical wellness and mental wellbeing. Its effects can also carry over to other aspects of a person’s life such as sense of purpose, developing positive relationships and interactions with others, and helping to prevent cognitive decline.

Exercise is a must for older adults and consulting a health professional can help people get the maximum benefit from regular physical activity. Simply put, tailored exercise can be instrumental in allowing someone to develop the healthy habit of exercising for the rest of their life.

Dr Rachelle Sultana is a clinical exercise physiologist with a related PhD from Sydney University

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