Big Gains for Seniors

If you’re older than 50, its time to seriously start thinking about exercise.

Why toil through a lifetime of hard work to find you can’t move at 60? Retirement should be about enjoying the fruits of your labour, not sitting it out.

Never exercised before? No worries. Research strongly suggests fitness neophytes have everything to gain and nothing to lose by lifting weights and performing cardio. In fact, those following the right formula can recover decades of lost health.

Your heart
An untrained heart loses its ability to process oxygen efficiently as it ages and becomes rigid. This results in breathlessness and other heart-failure-related symptoms.

According to sports cardiologist Dr. Ben Levine, cardiovascular exercise in your 50s and 60s can backdate your heart health to that of a 30- or 40-year-old. His research, recently published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, showed regular exercise, especially interval style training (bouts of challenging exercise interspersed with rest periods), can restore vitality and flexibility to an aging heart muscle, even for those who have never exercised.

According to Levine, waiting until your 70 may not have the same desired effect. In other words, get moving, now! In keeping with Levine’s research, where possible, challenge yourself with intermittent hills instead of flat routes when walking or biking.

Your muscles
Regardless of age, we are all pretty much designed the same. To varying degrees and assuming there are no medical issues, seniors can (and quite possibly should) be performing the same basic exercises as an 18-year-old.

In fact, studies out of the Center for Exercise Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham demonstrated seniors in their 60s and 70s were able to develop muscles as large and strong as an average 40-year-old.

The key here is supervision and consistency. There are many principles that govern muscle growth and development — it’s not something you can just “wing.” To ensure you aren’t spinning your wheels and to promote safety, consider investing in a trainer. One or two sessions does very little — much like one or two guitar lessons. Front-end load several sessions to ensure you establish good form and an appropriate resistance level.

Your joints
You don’t exercise because you have bad knees? Au contraire! It’s possible you have bad knees because you don’t exercise.

Research shows the arthritic pain of osteoarthritis can be reduced by 35 per cent through exercise as strength and function increase by 33 per cent. Even more impressive, in a two-year study, subjects with rheumatoid arthritis increased strength by 59 per cent.

Weight-bearing activity such as weight training can be the best medicine for aging joints. In the case of knees, inactivity can result in posterior chain inflexibility, which makes squatting down challenging. Simply put, the muscles in back are weak and tight, possibly leading to imbalance and joints that track poorly.

To improve posterior chain flexibility, consider how you sit. Instead of tilting off-balance and free-falling to an awaiting chair, try to control your drop. Get used to pushing backwards before breaking at the knees (imagine “butt-checking” a rolling chair away from you).

Continue the motion backwards, feeling your weight in the flat of your foot or your heels, not your toes. Keep your pelvis flipped back instead of tucked under. Lower yourself in a slow controlled manner as best you can.

To stand, push your heels into the floor. Keeping your chest high, try to stand vertically instead of bending forward and rolling onto your toes. In both cases, focus on your backside, taking the pressure off your knees.

When exercising with arthritis, a long warmup with slow, controlled movement is key — as is consistency.

Your mind
Nearly two million Canadians over the age of 60 are living with some form of mental illness, often stemming from isolation and immobility. Not only does exercise make your body strong, but it keeps you engaged and self-reliant.

“Gentle” fitness classes, while valuable for beginners, fail to cultivate progress in more experienced exercisers. If you want the muscle and heart of a 40-year-old, as mentioned in the above studies, challenge yourself with a progressive, individualized exercise plan.

Don’t underestimate your potential simply due to age. With a little instruction and perseverance, many seniors are shocked by the gains they can make. As science has demonstrated, people who don’t dedicate time for regular exercise spend their days getting old.

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