Exercise is a hugely important part of staying healthy and well. And that remains true as we age. But many seniors find it difficult to get moving regularly. According to research by the CDC, by age 75, a third of all men and half of all women no longer do any physical activity at all.
With an aging population, supporting people to stay active into old age is increasingly vital. That is where fitness professionals who specialize in gerontology can make a big difference.
Whether you already work with seniors or are considering developing your career in gerontology, understanding the unique challenges of working with this age group is key to successfully supporting your clients.
The benefits of exercise for seniors
Staying active in our later years has huge benefits for our health and quality of life. But not all seniors understand the importance of making physical movement a part of their everyday routine.
Highlighting the value of exercise in old age to your clients can help them make it a priority. Depending on their exact situation, you might talk to them about the potential benefits, including:
Reducing the risk of disease: Physical exercise helps to protect our heart health, prevent high blood pressure, and reduce the risk of diabetes, cancer, or strokes.
Slowing muscle loss: We naturally lose muscle as we age. But staying physically active can slow the rate of loss. This helps in preventing falls and supporting our bones and joints.
Protecting cognitive function: The ancient Romans were onto something when they talked about a healthy brain in a healthy body. Exercise helps to maintain good cognitive function, preventing memory loss and even reducing the chances of developing dementia.
Supporting healing: Regular exercise helps our immune systems to function properly, increasing our ability to fight off infections. It also speeds up wound healing – possibly by as much as 25%.
Contributing to the overall quality of life: Keeping physically active can prevent depression and lift our mood, as well as keeping us independent for as long as possible.
The challenges of exercise for seniors
Despite the many benefits of exercise for older people, some challenges can prevent seniors from making physical activity a part of their daily routine.
As a gerontologist, you must meet your clients where they are so you can support them on their journey to better physical health. Understanding the obstacles that they face when it comes to exercising can help you develop routines they will feel happy and confident following.
Some of the barriers that prevent seniors from exercising include:
- Worries over falling or injuring themselves
- A lack of knowledge on how to exercise safely
- A belief that they aren’t capable of exercising
- Lack of a social network that involves physical activity
- Fatigue or health complaints
- A lack of motivation
- Depression, anxiety, or low mood
- Not knowing where to find professional support
- Believing that they are too old to go to a gym or fitness center
Your role as a fitness professional is to understand which obstacles are holding your clients back and support them to overcome these. You will need to think about building their confidence as well as their fitness.
Safe exercises for seniors
Older adults can sometimes have the idea that exercise must be intensive to be effective. Of course, this is not the case. Even gentler exercise, such as walking, swimming, or active stretching, can improve mobility and lift the mood.
When working with older people, you’ll usually want to start slowly to build their confidence. Encouraging them to remain active around their homes by doing household chores and yard work helps maintain their physical stamina. And identifying activities they enjoy will help their new exercise habit to stick for the long-term.
Ideally, exercise routines for seniors should include some cardio, some strength training, and some stretching. Some options you might try with your clients include:
Low-impact cardio exercises that are gentle on the joints are the best option for seniors.
- Water aerobics – aqua jogging, leg lifts, arm curls, flutter kicking
Strength exercises can help seniors to remain more stable, supporting bones and joints and preventing falls.
- Pilates – bird-dog, leg lifts, air swimming, donkey kicks,
- Resistance band workouts – leg press, bicep curls, tricep presses, pulling the band apart
- Dumbbell exercises – bicep curls, overhead presses, tricep extensions, front raises
3. Stretches and balance exercises
Stretching and balance exercises help keep joints mobile into old age.
- Chair yoga – side bends, overhead stretches, cat-cow, seated twists
- Balance exercises using a chair – clock reaches, pliés, side leg raises
- Tai Chi
Keeping physically active is vital to a happy and healthy old age. Working with seniors to build their confidence in exercising is a rewarding specialism for any health and fitness professional.
Choosing to study a master’s degree in gerontology, like the one we offer at Concordia University Chicago, can help you build a career in this fascinating and much-needed area.
In addition to in text links, the following sites were consulted:
- Jones R. (2017). Mens Sana. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 67(663), 435. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp17X692609
- Langhammer, B., Bergland, A., & Rydwik, E. (2018). The Importance of Physical Activity Exercise among Older People. BioMed research international, 2018, 7856823. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/7856823
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