- To keep up your strength – to prevent falls and to be able to continue to do daily activities that require some strength, such as shopping, preparing meals, cleaning and hanging out the washing. In turn, these activities help you to keep up your strength.
- To maintain your bone density – strong bones are crucial to prevent falls, broken bones (particularly major breaks such as hip fractures, which can cause disability and on-going pain) and osteoporosis (a disease that leads to fractures and breaks), and to be able to do daily activities.
- To maintain flexible muscles – so you remain mobile and able to do daily tasks that require flexibility, such as reaching for something in a high cupboard.
- To keep your joints mobile so that you can keep moving with ease.
- For heart health.
- For general fitness and wellbeing.
- To feel good about yourself.
- For social reasons – to be with others.
What type of exercise should I do?
It really doesn’t matter too much – as long as you exercise! It is best to choose something you enjoy doing – that way you will stick with it. Weight-bearing exercise, such as walking and lifting weights is important to maintain bone density – small hand weights are fine, such as ½ -1 ½ kg dumbbells, or ankle or wrist weights (provided your ankle and wrist joints are strong enough and they have not been injured).
Walking is also great for building and maintaining strength in your lower body, particularly your legs, and for flexibility in your hamstring muscles (back of thighs) and hip flexors – these muscle groups get very tight when you sit a lot. Freestyle swimming and aqua aerobics in a deep pool – there is too much pressure on your joints in a shallow pool – are also great for building and maintaining upper and lower body muscle tone and strength.
Be aware of sports such as golf and tennis as these are asymmetrical (one-sided), which leads to imbalances in the body, which in turn cause muscle and joint weakness and mean you are more prone to injury.
I suggest you stay away from jogging too as this is a huge stress on the body, particularly the lower joints such as ankles, hips and knees.
Stretching your muscles is also very important as you age (at any age actually), to maintain your flexibility. This prevents the body from ‘stiffening up’, a common complaint by older persons. The main muscles to stretch are: hamstrings (back of thighs), quadriceps (front of thighs), hip flexors (top and front of thighs, near the groin), calves, chest and shoulders. I have also found connective tissue stretches to be very supportive for older people as they support the flow of energy in the body, and feel so good!
If you are wheelchair-bound, or not able to stand for long periods, you can always do some basic exercises in your chair, with or without holding hand weights or using ankle or wrist weights.
How much exercise should I do?
This is very individual. If you have always exercised, then you will be able to do a lot more than someone just starting out on an exercise programme.
If you learn to connect to, and observe, your body and listen to the messages your body is giving you, then you will know when you have had enough and so when to stop.
The amount of exercise can also vary from day to day, depending on what sort of day you had the day before and the day you are having. For example, you may have a lot planned for the day, such as grocery shopping or looking after grandchildren, in which case you may just need to stretch that day. Similarly, you may have had a big day out the day before and be feeling a little tired from that, so you will be better to rest.
Don’t lift weights on consecutive days – always have at least a day’s rest in between. Actually, one session of weights a week is probably enough to maintain your muscle strength.
If you can manage it, going for a walk every day is very beneficial for your health as we age (and for us all actually).
How long and how often?
Again, this is very individual and will depend on your fitness level and strength, as well as your circumstances (for example, you may be recovering from an operation or an injury). It would be great to do some form of exercise at least once a day. For weights, half an hour would be great if that feels okay for your body. Walking for half an hour every day and/or swimming for ten minutes three times a week would be enough, but if you can’t manage that, even ten minutes walking every day or five minutes swimming once a week is beneficial to your health and well-being, so don’t worry too much about how long. If you keep connected to, and observing of your body, you will know how often to exercise and when you have exercised enough.
What is this ‘exercise in connection with my body’ thing?
A good question – and one it took me quite a while to figure out!
I found that for me, exercising in connection with my body meant to first be aware of my body and what it was doing in each moment, for example being aware what muscles I was using in a certain exercise or how a certain joint movement feels, or how I was breathing.
It is for this reason that I start all my classes with a Gentle Breath Meditation®, followed by a body awareness exercise where participants bring their awareness to various parts of the body and how they feel. For example:
- Does one side feel different to the other?
- Have you any aches or pains or niggles?
- Can you feel any tightness or tension in the body?
- Are you breathing more in your chest, belly or ribs?
Secondly, it meant to keep my mind/thoughts on whatever I was doing, and I constantly remind the participants in my class to do this.
Often I found I could be in the middle of an exercise and my mind wandered off to what I was having for breakfast or what else I had to do that day. If your mind is not focussed on what you are doing it is very easy to over-exercise, or exercise in a way that does not support your body.
You see, the quality of your exercise session is just as important as how much/how often to exercise.
I find that if I am not staying connected with my body while doing a particular exercise it is easy to do too many repetitions (weights) or walk for too long – such that, at the end of my exercise session, I feel really tired and need to have a wee sleep, or have achy muscles, or I am breathing heavily through my mouth and, in an extreme case, I can even tear a muscle. For me, these are all signs that I have over-exercised. Similarly, if I am doing something I don’t enjoy I can easily give up after only a few minutes.
But…if I stay connected to my body while exercising, and am then able to listen to the messages my body is giving me, I know when to rest or stop, or when to change to another exercise.
This is particularly important as we age as often the mind can say “I used to be able to do this for this long, so why shouldn’t I be able to now?” If we listen to the mind alone and these types of thoughts in our head, then it is easy to override the body.
So, in a nutshell, it is best when exercising to stay aware of your body in that moment, and to keep your thoughts only on what your body is doing. Having said that…
Playfulness and Being Social
Another thing I have found to be very important in teaching exercise to older people is to make it fun and playful, and to understand that often a big reason people come to classes is for social reasons – to be with other people. For example, in my aqua aerobic classes many participants talk to each other the whole way through the class! At first I found this very disconcerting because they were not ‘focussing on their bodies’, but after a while I understood that this social aspect was very important to them and indeed was probably a big reason they kept coming to class.
When children are asked why they play sport they always answer, “to have fun” and in my experience this ‘fun’ aspect is just as important for older adults, and indeed for us all. So, in my classes I always bring in humour and playfulness.
In summary, exercise does not need to be a ‘chore’ or an ‘I should exercise’. If we choose a form of exercise that we love to do, exercise fully present and aware of our bodies, and stay connected to our body and our breath throughout our session so that we honour our bodies, without over-doing it, and let go the seriousness, it can be not only an important and even crucial thing to do for our health, but, hey, you may even enjoy it.
Anne S., NZ
Exercise Instructor, Mediator, Esoteric Healing Practitioner, Lifestyle Consultant, Auckland. Dip. Sport Sc., IYTA Teaching Dip. (Yoga), LL. B (Hons).