Aging Matters: Exercise isn’t just for youth

We hear it all the time – exercise for your health. But how does exercise impact later life? And

if exercise hasn’t ever been a regular routine, why are the retirement years a good time to start?

The benefits of exercise are many. It helps reduce stress, manage weight, stabilize blood sugar levels, supports brain and heart health, and the list goes on. Let’s look at a few of these in more detail.

Exercise at all times of life, but especially in later life:

* Benefits the immune system. Colds, the flu and other viruses can be more devastating to older adults whose immune systems are not as strong as they once were. But these germs have less of an impact on those who are exercising.

* Contributes to independence. Physical activity helps build and maintain strength. Strength is needed for all aspects of independent living – cooking, cleaning, climbing stairs, and carrying groceries to name a few.

* Manages many different chronic health conditions. Arthritis pain and stiffness can be partially managed by low-impact exercise such as water aerobics, swimming or bicycling. Calories burned during exercise can contribute to a healthy weight, which reduces heart disease and diabetes risks. For those with these conditions, exercise is an important factor in managing the diseases. Exercise may also improve memory and reduce the risk of some types of dementia.

* Improves sleep quality. Sleep patterns change with age. Many older adults find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. Exercise has helped many to enjoy longer and more restful sleep.

A well-rounded exercise program targets several areas of strength to provide the greatest benefit. They include:

* Doctor’s approval. Prior to beginning an exercise program, talk to and receive a doctor’s clearance.

* Aerobic. Walking, swimming and low-impact aerobics are examples of aerobic exercise. It strengthens the heart and lungs, improves circulation, increases the red blood count, reduces the incidence of depression, and reduces blood pressure. To gain the greatest benefit from aerobic activity, it should last at least 20 minutes.

* Flexibility. Flexible joints mean that it’s easier to reach items on shelves, tie shoes, drive and much more. When joints are more flexible, they are also stronger. Stretching and yoga are excellent examples of exercises that can help maintain and improve flexibility.

* Strength. Strength training uses resistance to increase the strength of specific muscle groups. Resistance can be in the form of weights, exercise bands or body weight. Strength training builds and maintains lean muscle mass, which is an important contributor to maintaining independence. Examples include biceps curls, leg extensions, and squats.

* Balance. Balance training can decrease the risk of falls. Many balance exercises are incorporated into the aerobic or strength training sections of a workout program. They may include standing on one foot, quick stops and starts, walking heel to toe, and walking backward.

Armed with the “what” and “why” of later life exercise, the next step is to find resources and programs that fit your personality and can be sustained over time.

The National Institute on Aging’s “Exercise and Physical Activity Guide” is a great place to start. It is a free 120-page guide that provides excellent information about exercise for all ages, but especially for older adults. The chapters include preparing, beginning, and maintaining a good exercise routine. It also includes over 30 pages of sample exercises for strength, flexibility, and balance.

Another free National Institute on Aging resource is the “Go4Life” DVD. A personal trainer offers tips, motivation, success stories, and sample exercises for a more interactive exercise experience. To order or download these and other National Institute on Aging resources, search the internet for “national institute on aging exercise.”

For those who prefer a group exercise experience, Kaunoa Senior Centers offer a variety of exercise classes at a very reasonable cost. All classes are included in the Kaunoa newsletter. To receive this newsletter, call 270-7308.

And finally, the Maui County Office on Aging coordinates EnhanceFitness, an ongoing exercise program that meets three times weekly and is designed for adults 50 plus. EF sites are currently operating in Kihei, Spreckelsville, Kahului and Lahaina. For additional information, contact the Maui County Office on Aging at 270-7774.

There are many reasons that now is the right time to exercise. But as important as starting a regular exercise routine is maintaining it over time. When exercising stops, the benefits quickly fade away. Decide today to make exercise a part of the rest of your life.

* Heather Greenwood is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Intergenerational and Aging Programs. Aging Matters will cover topics of interest to the aging Maui community and will appear on the third Sunday of each month.