Exercises for Seniors

Reasons to Exercise
Women over 60 who exercise for at least 30 minutes three times per week have the heart, lungs, and muscles of a woman ten years younger. Can you think of any better reason to exercise? In fact, there are other reasons, as well. Women reach a peak bone density at age 35, at which point bone density slowly decreases. At menopause, bone density begins to drop sharply if hormone replacement therapy is not administered. Lack of exercise, in addition to not eating enough dietary calcium, may be an important promoter of bone loss.

Women who are well past the age of menopause may be able to increase their bone mass through weight-bearing exercise. One study showed that sedentary nursing home residents in their eighties experienced more than a 4% increase in bone mass of the forearm when they took part in mild exercises three times a week for three years. A group who did not exercise experienced a decrease of bone density of 2.5% during the same period.

Exercise will help you maintain your weight as your metabolism slows. This can help you avoid developing diabetes and heart disease. Increased circulation can help your digestive system stay healthy and keep your immune system strong.

What to Do
The kind of exercise that you do depends on what effect you want to see. Stretching promotes flexibility, makes movement easier, and decreases the risk of muscle injury; strength training promotes muscle strength and builds up bones; endurance exercises strengthen the heart and improve overall fitness. The best workouts will combine all three types of exercise.

Older joints may become stiff and inflexible. In order to avoid injury during strength training and aerobic exercises, you need to warm up and cool down with stretching exercises for 5-15 minutes. There are stretching exercises for the calves, thighs, stomach, chest, back, shoulders, and arms. Here are just a few of the many you may want to try:

  • Shoulder Rotation: Lie flat on the floor with a pillow supporting your head. Stretch your arms out to the side and then bend your elbows so that your lower arms point downward (towards your feet) at a right angle. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds. Now bend your elbows so that your lower arms point upward (towards your head) at a right angle. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times. Make sure to keep your shoulders flat on the floor throughout this exercise.
  • Calves: Stand far enough away from a wall so that when you place your hands on the wall your arms are straight. Move one leg back 1-2 feet and make sure the heel and foot of that leg are flat on the floor. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds. Bend the knee of the leg that is moved back; make sure to keep the heel and foot flat on the floor. Hold this position for 10-30 seconds. Now repeat with the opposite leg. Repeat 3-5 times with each leg.
Strength Training
Muscles in the upper and lower body can be strengthened through the use of machines, free weights, or even by using household items such as soup cans as weights. When lifting weights, you should start with a weight you can lift without very much effort 5 times. When this becomes too easy, increase to doing 2 sets of 5, and then 3 sets of 5. When this is too easy, move up to 10 repetitions in each set, then increase to 15 times in each set. Once this becomes too easy, increase the amount of weight you are lifting. Strength training should be done for 30-40 minutes 2-3 times a week.

There are also a variety of strength training exercises that can be done simply around the home. Here are a few examples:
  • Plantar Flexion: this exercise strengthens the ankle and calf muscles. Hold a table or chair for balance and stand up straight. Slowly raise your body up so that you are standing on tiptoe (as high as possible). Hold this position for about 1 second. Then slowly lower your heels so that they are back on the ground. Repeat 8-15 times, rest a minute, then do another set of 8-15. As your strength increases, do this exercise standing on only one leg and alternate legs.
  • Arm Raise: this exercise strengthens your shoulder muscles. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor even with your shoulders. Put your arms straight down at your sides with your palms facing inward (toward your body). Now raise both arms to the side until they are at shoulder height. Hold this position for 1 second and then slowly lower your arms back to your sides. Repeat this 8-15 times, rest, then do another 8-15 repetitions.
Endurance Exercises
These are any activities that increase your heart rate and breathing for a long time-span. You may need to avoid "high-impact" exercises such as jogging and jumping rope because they put a large amount of strain on your muscles and joints. Good exercises to engage in are low-impact exercises including swimming, walking, and dancing. Endurance exercises should be done for 20-40 minutes at least 3 times per week. Make sure that you pay attention to warning signs such as lightheadedness, chest pain, or shortness of breath.

When exercising, you should work toward your target heart rate. Your maximum heart rate can be calculated by subtracting your age from 220. For instance, if you're 60 years old, 220-60=160. This means that 160 beats per minute is your maximum heart rate. Your target heart rate is 60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate. 60% of 160 is 96 and 80% of 160 is 128. This means that someone who is 60 years old should work up to a heart rate when exercising of somewhere around 96-128 beats per minute.

Back Strengthening Exercises
Back pain is a common symptom of aging. Here are two exercises you can do to strengthen your back muscles:
  • To strengthen the muscles in your upper back and shoulder, sit with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. With your arms relaxed and bent, pull back your shoulders as far as they will go.
  • Lie face down with a cushion or pillow under your hips and torso with your arms at your sides and your legs straight. Lift your head and feet off the floor at the same time and hold this position for a moment. Relax and repeat.
For more examples of good stretching, strength training, and endurance exercises, the National Institute on Aging has an exercise guide. Before you begin any type of exercise program, make sure you consult your doctor, especially if you are over the age of 60.

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