For seniors, even a small amount of exercise can have health benefits. And if you’re already healthy, staying active in your golden years helps you build extra muscle reserve and flexibility to recover more quickly if you do get sick.
Exercise is not only for your body, says Ronan Factora, MD, who specializes in geriatrics. It can benefit your brain. It’s been shown to decrease depression and anxiety, as well as improve and preserve cognitive functioning.
“There is not a single pill that is going to provide this many benefits,” he says.
Dr. Factora shares do’s and don’ts for exercising when you’re 50 or older — whether you’re having trouble getting off the couch or are already out there biking and hiking.
Do start walking. Thirty minutes of walking, four days a week, is a good way to get moving, says Dr. Factora. “Even 15 minutes daily can have an impact on a person’s health,” he says. “You don’t have to break a sweat. You just have to move.” Also, wearing weight-resistance bands while walking can help strengthen your bones and improve your muscle tone.
Do take proper precautions. If you haven’t exercised lately, it’s important to start slowly and build yourself up to the point where you’re moving as quickly as you’d like.
If you have a lot of pain when you move, take your pain medication before you exercise. “You have to accept there’s going to be some level of pain that you have to live with, but we don’t want it to interfere with your ability to be active,” Dr. Factora says.
“Exercise is about what you’re able to enjoy and how much you’re able to tolerate,” he adds. “You’re not going to be able to run a marathon as quickly when you’re in your 60s and 70s as you did when you were in your 20s and 30s.”
To help prepare for exercise, he says it’s also important to stretch. Flexibility improves your balance and helps reduce injuries to your joints. If you’re worried about falling, a 12-week tai chi program can substantially improve your strength and balance.
Don’t let fear get in the way of physical activity. While you need to take some precautions, Dr. Factora says that patients who tend to fall are the ones who are most reluctant to get up and move. But regular walking and moving can build confidence and strength and actually reduce your tendency to fall.
If you’re worried about injury, talk to a health professional. A physical therapist can assess your balance, walking and strength and give you specific strengthening exercises. If you have heart or lung problems, it’s probably best to discuss a plan with your doctor, Dr. Factora says.
Don’t limit yourself to seniors-only activities. You don’t need to stick to seniors-only classes or limit yourself to physical therapy sessions. “Many people won’t do any of their exercises outside of their usual physical therapy time,” says Dr. Factora, “and that’s a mistake.”
You can try out different classes. Check out the instructor and take a class you feel comfortable with, says Dr. Factora. It doesn’t have to be age-specific. A class with a mix of ages might be livelier and give you a fresh perspective.