Return to Sports and Fitness Page

Exercise and Healthy Aging

Dr. Andrew Weil, in his book Healthy Aging, points out that while aging is "an irreversible process", the body can be maintained "through all phases of life". There are many options for those that want to maintain or improve health through exercise. One of the best ways is to develop and practice a cardio/resistance training program. Within this type of training there are many variations, one or more of which can fit an individualís goals and capabilities.

A sound exercise program, practiced consistently, can be beneficial for anyone at any age. However to be effective the program should be developed on a personal basis with an individualís specific needs in mind. This is especially true for those over 40 and becomes even more of a factor as people advance in age from that point. Consultation with a physican is a key step in beginning and maintaining an exercise program.

For those nearer the 40 mark the goals of training often include not only general health but also conditioning that will enhance oneís enjoyment in the participation of a sport or hobby. For those in an older age range, rehab or reconditioning issues can be a prime concern. In some cases people in this age group find themselves restricted to the home because of mobility difficulties. However, in these cases quite often exercise can improve oneís ability to move and maintain some independence, while also improving health status. In fact exercise can be essential to stabilizing the health of these individuals. Simple programs of a light intensity can bring about a change in foundational strength and conditioning, which can lead to greater mobility and enhanced general health.

Any additional movement, particularly done in the context of an exercise program practiced consistently, can strengthen muscles, which will help strengthen bones and massage the cardio vascular system through movement.

As muscles become stronger they exert more force and strengthen the bones on which they act. Studies have shown that once the strengthening process is underway the bones become more fracture resistant, even though there may be no measurable change in bone mass.

Again personalized direction can play a key role by providing guidance in implementing and carrying out a specific plan.

For example, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, and high blood pressure are some of the more common medical conditions that are frequently found among the older population groups. Each condition requires a specific exercise strategy and each can be improved with exercise. But individual programs must be developed with the specific condition in mind and additional considerations must be made if a combination of these problems exist in an individual.

Frequency, intensity and length of the exercise session are key factors when developing any exercise program. Determining the parameters of these factors is greatly dependent on the health of the individual.

A general program for fitness should include aerobics, resistance training and stretching. Two days of resistance training per week with a minimum of a day of rest between sessions has been shown to be effective. Routines involving more resistance training days can be designed and, in some cases, are desirable. Aerobic training should be practiced four times a week (but can be performed more). Stretching programs can also be performed four or more times per week.

When developing a resistance training program for general fitness, an average of twelve exercises can be selected. The amount of weight used should be light with 10 to 20 repetitions performed two or three times per session. The routine can be executed in circuit type fashion where each exercise is performed once then the process is repeated. Typically rest between each exercise is short, 30 to 40 seconds. The workout should be proceeded by five minutes of a light warm up, i.e. walk around the block or an easy session on a stationary bike. When completed, the workout should be followed by a light warm down, similar to the warm up. Lastly, some stretching can be performed to complete the workout.

At the start of a resistance training program the level of the trainee's fitness should be determined. Most often, a foundation of fitness must be established before meeting the critriea like that of the program outlined above. With regards to resistance training, the intensity and length of exercise is modified in the beginning and the frequency of exercise sometimes is a consideration. For those with limiting physical conditions, the initial program may be very modest. Duration of the routine may be as little as five or ten minutes, the number of exercises may be limited and the intensity would be extremely light. Programs of such limited scope often can be expanded by being practiced two or three times per day and two or three times per week. Usually, as progress is made, the routine can slowly be developed into a more conventional fitness program.

There are many forms of aerobic training. Again, individual capabilities are factor influencing choice. Enjoyment of the activity should be another factor (this is true with the resistance and stretching components as well).

In general, cardio fitness can be enhanced with a program practiced for 20 to 30 minutes four or more times per week at a level of 60% to 70% of maximum heart rate ((220-age) x .60 or .70). Fitness levels and physical conditions/limitations are major factors influencing the level and intensity of exercise. For those with severe limitations a gentle walk is a good place to start. There are those who will never be able to perform at the 60% to 70% level but would benefit from an easy 10 minute walk once or twice a day. Positive health benefits were observed in a recent study of men who walked their dogs regularly for twenty minutes a day. A cardio workout should be preceded by a few minutes of warm up i.e. easy walking or running.

A stretching program can be included at the beginning (after a light warm up) and or end of a cardio workout or at the end of a resistance training routine. A routine can be completed in 10 to 20 minutes. Again the individualís capabilities come into play. A stretching routine should include movements that will help maintain or increase range of motion and enhance flexibility, however the routine should begin with simple, gentle movements. A safe way to perform stretches is to execute the movement slowly and when a comfortable end position is reached hold it for 10 to 30 seconds. Over stretching can have a negative effect on the muscles and joints. But a simple program, practiced consistently , with easy movements that over time progressively challenge the areas being worked will bring results. A basic program of stretching can be developed with no props or the use of such everyday items as chairs and walls. The balance ball is a good tool at a beginnerís level because the ball can aid the trainee in performing various stretches. Qi Gong type workouts can also be effective for beginners or those with limitations. Yoga is also a possibility particularly for those with a good foundation of fitness. With disciplines such as Qi Gong and Yoga programs can last an hour or more.

Throughout this discussion the concept of practicing a program consistently has been highlighted. No matter how comprehensive a program is if it is not performed on a regular basis the results are compromised. A simple ten minute aerobics program practiced four times a week is going to be more effective then an elaborate hour and a half routine that is performed on an inconsistent basis.

Two other important points should be made that apply to all areas of a fitness program. The routines must be varied i.e. they should be modified in length, intensity or some other manner from time to time. The body responds when changes are introduced into a program. The programs should be progressive, meaning that they should become more demanding either in exercises performed or intensity. A foundation must be built before alterations can be made and the basic concepts a routine is based on may not change. However, varying the programs and keeping them progressive over a period of time is important to keeping them effective in regards to making continued improvements in strength and conditioning.

Lastly it is important to remember the concept that movement is essential to maintaining or improving health. The older the individual the more important movement is. Light to modest movement through exercise or some other means will have a positive effect.

Consultation with a physician is a key step in beginning and maintaining an exercise program.

Return to Sports and Fitness Page| |Return to Top of Page