According to researchers, half an hour of light exercise, six days a week is all that is needed for an elderly person to reduce their chances of mortality by more than 40 per cent. This was the conclusion drawn after a 12-year Norwegian study of 6,000 men aged 73 and above. Those who took a brisk walk daily reduced their mortality rate by almost half compared to the sedentary group.
Regular exercise reduces the risk of coronary heart disease and helps to maintain muscle strength, thereby preventing falls, says Dr Joanne Kua, Consultant, Falls and Balance Clinic and Institute of Geriatrics and Active Ageing at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
Physical activity and exercise can also enhance cognitive health and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Says Dr Kua, “All these benefits work together to prevent disabilities, thus enabling the older adult to live as independently as possible for as long as possible, improving their quality of life.”
Getting a Medical Check-Up
It is never too late to start getting active but sedentary older adults should have a thorough medical check-up before starting any activity. This is to rule out any medical or chronic conditions that could preclude them from exercising.
If your doctor gives you the go-ahead, start slow. Begin with short intervals of light-intensity physical activity — say, five to 10 minutes at a time — and gradually increase the duration of this light activity and the number of days a week of exercising before slowly building up to the desired amount.
Exercise Recommendations for Older Adults
The Health Promotion Board’s National Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults and seniors get 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk-walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity such as jogging, in addition to strength-training activities two days per week.
Going for a brisk half-hour walk five days a week and doing tai chi twice a week is sufficient to meet the recommendations.
However, if you have existing medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis or heart disease, ask your doctor to design a regimen more suited to you. It should take into account the type, frequency, intensity and the progression of the activity.
Discomfort or Pain When Exercising
Stop if you experience discomfort and consult a doctor. “In older adults, chest discomfort, breathlessness and excessive joint pains may be signs to stop and discuss with their physician the right intensity and type of exercises they are doing,” says Dr Kua.
A common myth is that exercise can contribute to knee pain. Exercise can actually reduce pain and improve mobility but solving this requires a collaborative effort with the physician and physiotherapist.
The physician will need to control the pain with medication. The physiotherapist will then introduce them to stretching, aerobic and strengthening exercises in stages, to help with their osteoarthritis.
How to Start Exercising
To get started, all you need is a good pair of comfortable walking shoes. Remember to stay cool and hydrated. Bring along a water bottle and wear a hat and consider timing your walks for the early morning or evening. Lengthen your walks gradually to avoid overdoing it.
If a brisk walk sounds boring, try a group exercise class, such as Zumba Gold at your local community centre.
Or find a buddy to exercise with — a friend will keep you entertained and also help you stick to your exercise routines.
“Exercising in groups for older adults has the added benefits of social engagement and mutual encouragement which can help to motivate them to continue to be active,” says Dr Kua.
If full-on exercising is not your cup of tea, there are plenty of other ways to stay active and reap the many health benefits of exercising. Dancing, playing golf and even vacuuming the floor can be aerobic in nature. Furthermore, carrying groceries and walking instead of taking public transport and washing windows or the floor can double up as muscle-strengthening activities.