There’s no way around it: As time passes, we tend to lose muscle mass, our organs tend to function less efficiently, and our risk of disease increases. The good news is that there is a lifestyle change we can make to mitigate these risks, and it involves exercise—particularly balance exercises for seniors.
Exercise or physical activity is one of the most important steps you can take toward improving your health. Multiple studies have shown that people who are physically active are more likely to live longer and remain independent compared with those who are inactive. And yet, a 2015 report from the United Health Foundation states that 33.3 percent of seniors are not engaging in physical activity, compared with 28.7 percent in 2014. This is a trend that needs to change, because staying active with such routines as balance exercises for seniors can make a positive impact on the aging process.
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Benefits of Balance Exercises for Seniors
Exercising regularly produces a number of important benefits. Among them:
- Longevity: Researchers have shown that exercise increases your likelihood of living longer. While it is important to consult with your doctor if you have never been physically active and want to begin an exercise regimen, evidence suggests that it is never too late to reap the benefits. One study found a significant survival benefit in people between the ages of 70 and 85 who started a physical activity regimen compared with those who remained inactive.
- Independent living: Studies have shown that people who are physically active are more likely to be able to live independently as they age. One study evaluated the physical activity level of people at the age of 78 and found that those who were most active were more likely to be living independently at the age of 85.
- Brain age: Exercise has a positive impact on our brains. Increased physical activity is associated with improved cognitive function, including better executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, and strategizing. While exercising can help you avoid or delay the process of developing mild cognitive impairment, it has also been shown to improve cognitive functioning in those already experiencing some degree of impairment.
- Weight control: Exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity, which, in turn, will help reduce your risk of many diseases. Excess weight is also a burden on the body’s musculoskeletal system and can impair your mobility.
- Decreased risk of disease: Regular exercise has been shown to both reduce the risk of and improve symptoms of many diseases including high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. It can also help prevent bone density loss in people with osteoporosis and can improve lung function in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Exercise, when part of a doctor-approved program, can help speed recovery from certain illnesses as well.
- Reduced anxiety and depression: Exercise has been shown to improve both anxiety and depression. Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins that can ease depression. One study of an elderly population showed that people who exercised regularly had a 20 percent reduction in anxiety compared with those who did not exercise.
- Reduced risk of falls and hospitalization: Exercise, particularly exercise that increases muscle mass and strength, is associated with a decreased risk of falls and a decreased risk of being hospitalized.
- Financial savings: By being physically fit and minimizing your risk of disease and other age-related disorders, your need for prescription medication can decrease, translating into what can be a substantial cost savings over the years.
Creating an Exercise Plan
It’s particularly important as you age to consult your healthcare provider so you can avoid injury before beginning a new exercise regimen. The most effective way to embark on a successful exercise program is to find one that’s fun and convenient for you.
There are several steps you can take to improve the odds that you will create a plan you can maintain:
- Make it fun: Exercise does not need to be boring. Find an activity you enjoy, whether it is walking, swimming, taking a dance or yoga class, or hiking. There are many different ways to get exercise.
- Make it convenient: Find a place that is easy to get to for your exercise so that getting there does not become burdensome.
- Keep a schedule: Find a time of day and pick certain days of the week when exercising will best fit into your routine.
- Make it social: Finding a partner to exercise with, or joining a class at a gym or community center can not only keep you motivated, but can make the process more enjoyable.
- Be smart: Consult with your doctor on a plan that is healthy for you. Leave yourself time to warm up your muscles before taxing them with more rigorous exercise. If it causes pain, you need to reevaluate your regimen. Be willing to readjust your routine if you have an illness or injury that prevents you from doing the exercise you are used to doing.
What Types of Exercise Should I Do?
There are four main categories of exercise. Which type(s) you decide to incorporate into your regimen should depend on your health and medical problems. Your doctor can help guide you in creating a safe regimen.
1. Aerobic: Engaging in an exercise that safely raises your heart rate or makes you breathe a little harder—aerobic fitness—can help build up your stamina and energy level. Swimming, tennis, aerobics, or simply walking briskly are examples of activities that raise your heart rate. Most experts recommend 30 minutes a day of this kind of exercise, at least several days a week. If 30 consecutive minutes is too much for you, you can break it into 10-minute segments throughout the day. A study of people between the ages of 60 and 83 showed that this type of exercise was the most beneficial in terms of reducing abdominal fat and C-reactive protein levels (a marker of inflammation), both of which are linked to heart disease and diabetes. (See also our story “The HIIT Trend: High-Intensity Interval Training.”)
2. Strength Training: This type of exercise (including activities like squats or push-ups) helps maintain muscle mass. Muscles support your joints; stronger muscles can help reduce arthritis symptoms and avoid joint injuries.
3. Balance: Balance exercises for seniors can help reduce the risk of suffering a fall. Examples you can try:
- Heel-to-toe walking: Walking in a straight line, place the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other foot. Walk across a room in this pattern, attempting to stay on a straight course.
- Single leg stand: Holding on to the back of a chair, lift one leg and balance your weight on the other leg for 20 seconds. As your steadiness improves, you can perform this without holding onto the chair.
- Balance walk: One of the most basic balance exercises for seniors involves raising your arms on both sides to shoulder height and walking in a straight line, one foot in front of the other. As you walk, lift the back leg and hold it up for one second. Keep your arms raised at all times.
4. Flexibility: Stretching exercises for seniors keep your muscles limber and can keep you flexible. Increased flexibility helps keep you mobile while also preventing strains and sprains or other types of muscular injury. Working out in water is an ideal way to become more flexible without putting more stress on your joints. Exercises you can do both in and out of the water include:
- Leg abductions strengthen your outer thighs, the muscles around the hip, and the core. Stand tall, holding on to the side of the pool or a wall for support. Lift your left leg out to the side, keeping your foot pointing forward; then bring your leg back to the start position. Do 10 to 12 repetitions, then switch to the right leg. Do three sets (left and right) on non-consecutive days.
- Side raises strengthen the muscles around the shoulders and tones the arms. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides. Close your hands, with thumbs pointing upward. Slowly raise your arms up, keeping them slightly in front of your body, not straight out to the side. Keep shoulders down as you raise your arms no higher than shoulder level. Slowly lower to the start position. Do three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions on non-consecutive days.
Originally published in 2016, this post is regularly updated.