Is there a realistic way for people over the age of 50 to stay fit without spending all their free time exercising? Doctors and exercise physiologists have done years of research in an effort to answer that very question and the results are encouraging.
Figure 1: Weight workouts are a common part of most exercise routines
After I turned 50, I figured it would be easy to continue the fitness routine I had built into my life up to that point, which consisted of running, 3-day per week weight workouts, bicycling on random days, and a lot of stretching. Everything went well until my mid-50s, when my body told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was time to cut back.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of information available online and elsewhere that shows the way for the over-50 folks who want to stay healthy, fit and in top shape. The information below is what I discovered when I checked out about of dozen of the top resources.
What to Do, and What Not to Do
Geriatric specialists, doctors who specialize in treating older adults, say that exercise should be a part of everyone’s life, no matter how old they are. That means whether you’re 40 or 90, you should be doing something on a regular basis that keeps your body moving.
What are some of the recommended exercise methods for older adults? One study that looked at a large group of individuals between the ages of 40 and 95 concluded that just about everyone can benefit from some combination of five specific forms of exercise/movement: resistance training (weight-lifting), walking, calisthenics, swimming, and stretching.
Though stretching itself is not considered a form of exercise, for older adults it can really help to improve their flexibility and range-of-motion, thus it is included in the suggested forms of activity.
Walking: Doctors have recommended walking as the “ideal exercise” for decades, dating back to the late 1950s when a major research study pointed to walking as one of the safest, most effective ways to improve health in all ages of the population. Since then, walking has become a staple of exercise routines for older adults especially, and even a few younger folks who take part in “race walking” and power-walking.
Whatever it’s called, walking can and should be a part of every older adult’s fitness regimen. It’s easy to do, keeps you connected to the outdoors and other people, involves minimal risk of injury, and requires no special equipment.
Weights: Resistance training for seniors has come into its own in the last two decades, after several research studies showed how even lifting light weights could improve bone and joint strength, and perhaps prevent osteoporosis. Since then, doctors have routinely recommended moderate weight training for some of their older patients.
Calisthenics: People who are now in their 50s and 60s grew up with calisthenics as a core component of their school fitness programs in the U.S. For that reason alone, most seniors today at least are familiar with the basic calisthenic exercises. For simple, body-weight resistance workouts, this form of activity can be ideal for seniors who are reasonably fit, can do several repetitions of the standard exercises without injury, and can benefit from resistance training of this kind.
Swimming: For seniors who are able to swim and enjoy doing so, it can be one of the best forms of exercise because of its aerobic component and the fact that it is one of the few zero-impact activities available. Some older folks swim regularly, which helps strengthen the cardio-respiratory system as well as all major muscle groups.
Stretching: People over 50 are able to benefit greatly from regular stretching routines. Daily sessions can lead to direct improvement and maintenance of range-of-motion, joint health, and an overall sense of well-being.
Figure 2: Five different ways that older people can stay in shape
Learn More About Smart, Safe Workouts
Take a look at some of the best publications on the topic of exercise for older adults. Each one of the three books listed below does plenty of myth-busting, offers realistic routines that can be done virtually anywhere, and explains the physiology of the aging body and its response to regular exercise.
For anyone who wants a large dose of motivation along with top-notch expertise, this is the book, a best-seller for good reason. Combining the informed advice of a physician and one of his “example” patients, you’ll see how it is possible to improve your fitness level no matter what point you’re starting from. This is the paperback version of the long-time favorite that all the fitness experts rave about. Dr. Harry Lodge explains that it is possible to turn back the body’s clock, especially if you’ve developed some habits like too much TV watching and eating junk food on a regular basis.
The author says that about 70 percent of the “normal” aging process can be easily postponed. That includes things like poor balance, general weakness, and aching joints. What’s even better, the program can also help older fitness enthusiasts overcome injuries and serious illnesses in some cases.
The overall program consists of some very precise rules that are the cornerstone of the Doctor’s philosophy. For example, Lodge advises exercising 6 days each week, avoiding junk food as if it were radioactive, and maintaining strong social ties with friends and family.
There’s more to it than that, but the main thrust is to keep moving and exercising and watch what you eat. The mind and psyche is “exercised” with social interaction to provide an eclectic wellness routine that just about anyone can follow (with a modest dose of will power and motivation).
Here is a commonsense approach to yoga for seniors. Technically not an “exercise” routine for building muscle, yoga has many benefits for people of all ages, including better flexibility, improved posture and a generalized sense of well-being.
The beauty of “Relax into Yoga for Seniors” is its clear explanations, with photos, of all the postures. The slow buildup over a 6-week time span is another stroke of genius because it allows for even a total beginner to ease into yoga and create good habits that can last a lifetime. There are freebies that come with the book as well, like PDFs and downloadable audio tracks with helpful guidance.
For older people who have any type of physical limitation due to disease or injury, the book offers a generous supply of specialized yoga routines that can be done in place of the standard routines.
The business of yoga instruction is booming thanks to a newfound love for the gentleness of the practice by seniors all over the U.S. That might be one reason that beginner and intermediate yoga classes at gyms and fitness clubs are always so well attended.
The National Institute on Aging has produced its own book, “Fitness Over Fifty” that combines commonsense exercise and nutrition advice with an illustrated workout routine. The book is loaded with helpful information like exercise safety tips, explanations about motivation, illustrated methods for improving balance and strength, plenty of nutrition tips along with a section on how to keep good records to see if you’re improving.
Up front, the authors note that the moderately challenging exercise routines are focused on achieving four goals: strength, balance, flexibility and increased energy. This book is ideal for anyone over the age of 50, but seems more geared to an even older demographic, perhaps the over-65 set. In any case, the routines offer a smart, achievable way to attain general fitness without knocking yourself out, and the nutrition advice is a nice bonus in a book like this.
Easy Does It
Most experts seem to be in agreement on several key aspects of exercise for older adults. All recommend a regular routine for optimal health, knowing how much you can take, and not over-doing it. Outside of those basic guidelines, it’s really up to the individual to choose when and how to exercise. If you like to walk and do some basic weightlifting, then that could become your core routine, but make sure to build variety into any program, no matter what your age.
Contrary to one of the big myths, namely that older people shouldn’t exercise, medical specialists point out that nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, an aging body does not respond to physical exertion the way a 20-year-old one does. But that’s actually an argument for exercise becoming more necessary as we age.
What are your own thoughts about exercise for the over-50 crowd? Have you experimented with routines that seemed to show promise? Let us know in the comment section below or tell us your thoughts on our Facebook page. We’re always interested in knowing what our readers think and what their experiences are.