Exercise has a range of health benefits for seniors, including improving mood and reducing risk of diabetes, stroke, cancer and even dementia.
Importantly it can also help seniors maintain physical function and independence, so they have the freedom to go out and be active, whether that is a round of golf or a walk around the neighbourhood. It really is the best medicine!
Associate Professor Michele Callisaya is a physiotherapist and researcher based at Monash University and Peninsula Health (partners in the National Centre for Healthy Ageing), specialising in exercise to prevent falls and dementia.
With the launch of the Safe Exercise At Home website (https://www.safeexerciseathome.org.au/), we sat down to have a chat about how seniors can keep fit both at home and out in the community.
1. What types of exercises are important for seniors?
“People might be most familiar with cardiovascular exercise, which focuses on keeping your heart, lungs and blood vessels fit. Around 30 minutes of this type of exercise is recommended on most days of the week, so that might be something like going for a walk or a bike ride.
There’s also strengthening exercises where you lift weights and that’s particularly important for your keeping your muscles and bones strong. It’s great for general functional activities like being able to stand up from a chair or climbing stairs.
You might be less familiar with balance exercises, but they are equally as important. They help to maintain mobility and reduce the likelihood of a fall. They can be as simple as standing with your feet close together or on one leg, but they can also include slow movements like tai chi.
The great thing is that you don’t have to exercise all at once – you can do it in 10 minute blocks, 3 times per day, depending on your fitness and comfort level. In addition, some you might not think of some activities, like gardening, as exercise – but the good news is that they are!
You can check out our website for more examples.”
2. What is the best way to exercise if you are a senior with limited mobility?
“A great way for a senior with limited mobility to exercise is to start slowly by breaking up the amount of time that spent sitting down each day. If you’re watching TV for a certain amount of hours per day, you can always get up during commercial breaks and go for a short walk around the house or stand up and down ten times.
The Safe Exercise At Home website was designed to offer expertise in exercise and other forms of physical activity for older people and people with mobility limitations.
It’s not intended to replace individual health professional care though. So if you have any questions about what you can safely do, or if you have health problems, you should seek professional advice from your doctor, a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist before you start exercising.
On this website, we recommend that seniors with limited mobility start at level 1, which are exercises that would suit those who may walk slowly, use a walking aid, have a medical condition that limits activity, or for someone who needs assistance with housework or other daily activities.
Level 2 exercises are designed for seniors who may have well controlled medical conditions and can also walk down the street comfortably without a walking aid.
Building up from level 1 to level 2 may take some time, but just go at your own pace and make sure you are comfortable. If you experience any pain or discomfort, stop the exercise and see your doctor if necessary.”
3. What is the best way to exercise if you are a senior with a higher fitness level?
“You would be at level 3 of our recommendations for exercises if you’re a senior who is going for regular walks for at least 30 minutes, gardening for an hour or attending a gym.
It’s really great to try a variety of exercises, but if you prefer to exercise at home rather than in your neighbourhood, you could use an exercise bike or treadmill. For strength exercises try lifting ordinary items like tins of food, water bottles or plastic milk bottles filled with sand or water.”
4. How can seniors exercise safely in their own home?
“It’s so important to make sure you have a safe space when you exercise inside. This would involve removing mats or objects that may be a tripping hazard, and standing next to a bench or table so you know you’ve got support for your balance.
Wearing comfortable clothing and a good pair of sport shoes instead of slippers is always a good idea, and so is drinking plenty of water to keep hydrated.
If you are watching online exercises on your iPad or laptop, be mindful of any cords ensuring they are kept out of the way as well.”
5. How can seniors stay motivated when they exercise?
“There’s lots of things you can do to motivate yourself to exercise, but one of the easiest is to choose physical activities that you like and even put on some of your favourite music, the radio or a podcast while you do them.
At the start of the week, you might plan what exercises you want do and write them down, so you feel a sense of accomplishment when you are able to tick them off your list.
Even better, telling someone else about your intended exercises or asking them to exercise with you, while still maintaining your distance, certainly makes it more enjoyable.
There’s also motivating stories from other seniors on our website to read.
Remember to reward yourself for your hard work!”
If you have any concerns or questions about what you can safely do, you should seek
professional advice from your doctor, physiotherapist, or other health professional with
expertise in exercise prescription.
Associate Professor Michele Callisaya
A/Prof Michele Callisaya is a physiotherapist at Peninsula Health and Monash University and an NHMRC Boosting Dementia Leadership fellow. She is also a Senior Lecturer at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania. Photo Credit: Peter Mathew