Exercise or physical activity is beneficial for us all, but this is especially true as we reach old age. As we get older a variety of factors can cause us to give up on exercise and develop a more sedentary lifestyle. Health conditions, a fear of falling, pain, weight issues, reduced mobility, and other factors can all play a role.
A lack of physical activity can have a negative impact on your physical and mental health and put you at increased risk of developing many different health conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Exercise won’t stop you from aging, but including a mix of aerobic, strengthening, and flexibility exercises in your daily schedule can help you to live a longer and healthier life. Importantly, any amount of physical activity is better than none.
More work needs to be done to fully understand exactly how exercise benefits older adults, but in the meantime, we’ve listed our top 6 benefits of exercise for seniors and older adults below.
Before you begin a new activity check with your healthcare professional about what sort of exercise is right for you.
1. Helps you maintain your independence as you age
As we age it can get more difficult to shower, dress, prepare meals and perform other activities of daily living. The less active we are, the more difficult these tasks can become. Exercise is a great way to boost your strength and stamina, which can help ensure you’re able to look after yourself and continue to live independently for as long as possible. Seniors living in the community are more likely to be physically active than those that live in a rest home.
2. Helps protect against chronic disease
Exercise helps you manage and protect against chronic diseases such as:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Back pain
- Cancers, including colon and breast cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
Exercise helps to reduce the impact of chronic disease in a number of different ways. Regular aerobic and strength training exercises get your heart pumping and blood flowing. They also help boost your immune system, decrease inflammation and keep your digestive system moving. In addition, physical activity improves insulin sensitivity, reduces fasting insulin levels, reduces the levels of certain hormones, decreases oxidative stress, enhances DNA repair mechanisms and more.
3. Improves your brain function
Exercise can help improve your cognitive function or how well your brain works. Cognitive function is a broad term that refers to your ability to do things such as learn, think, remember, reason, make decisions, pay attention and problem solve.
Advancing age is linked to a decline in cognitive function, which may be linked to an increase in cardiovascular disease, other vascular disorders and conditions such as Alzehimer’s disease.
During old age our brain volume shrinks along with our gray matter, which is the part of the brain that deals with processing information. Regular aerobic exercise helps to slow the rate at which we lose grey matter and protect against Alzehimer’s and other forms of dementia. It also helps maintain and improve our cognitive function in general.
It is not exactly clear how vascular dysfunction - when your blood vessels lose their ability to respond normally - leads to cognitive impairment, but it is thought that exercise helps memory and cognition at least partly by improving blood flow to the brain.
4. Improves your mobility, strength, flexibility and balance
As we age we lose bone mass (osteopenia or osteoporosis), and muscle mass and function (sarcopenia). We also tend to become less flexible and lose our balance more easily. This leads to an increased risk of falls and fractures and can result in a loss of mobility and independence. While medication and a well-balanced diet can help, exercise is the most recommended option to help counteract the effects of aging and keep you on your feet.
Regular resistance training and weight-bearing exercises help build and maintain healthy bone and muscle. They also help keep joints healthy and may help alleviate symptoms of arthritis. Strong muscles and bones improve balance, coordination, and strength. This in turn helps prevent falls, broken bones, and helps you maintain the movement in your joints that you need for everyday tasks. Exercises that help with balance and flexibility are also recommended.
5. Improves your sleep
Sleep difficulties become more common in old age as the area of the brain that controls our internal body clock begins to deteriorate. A decrease in the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and a lack of exposure to sunlight in older adults can also contribute to poor sleep, as can various health conditions associated with old age.
As we get older we tend to feel ready for bed earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning, wake more at night, nap more during the day, and take longer to recover from changes in our sleep schedule.
Poor sleep can also contribute to ill health, so it’s important to take steps to get the sleep you need. One of the benefits of exercise is that it can help to improve your sleep. Regular exercise can help older people fall asleep more quickly, stay asleep for longer and get better quality sleep.
It’s not clear exactly why exercise helps improve sleep in older adults, but it may be that it helps to shift the body clock, improves symptoms of depression and anxiety, affects levels of serotonin and other chemicals in the brain, or even assists sleep by causing changes in body temperature.
6. Improves your mental health
No matter what your age, exercise can help boost your mental wellbeing and quality of life. Social isolation, chronic illness, loss of independence and low levels of physical activity are all factors that can affect the elderly and can contribute to the development of depression, anxiety, loneliness and poor mental health in general.
Joining an exercise class can be particularly good for your mental health if you’ve become isolated, but simply getting out for a walk or doing some gardening are also great options.
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