Fact: Every hour of every day, 330 Americans turn 60.
Fact: By 2030, one in five Americans will be older than 65.
Fact: The number of people over 100 doubles every decade.
Fact: As they age, people lose muscle mass and strength, flexibility and bone.
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Fact: The resulting frailty leads to a loss of mobility and independence.
The last two facts may sound discouraging. But they can be countered by another. Regular participation in aerobics, strength training, and balance and flexibility exercises can delay and may even prevent a life-limiting loss of physical abilities into one's 90s and beyond.
This last fact has given rise to a new group of professionals who specialize in what they call “active aging” and an updated series of physical activity recommendations for older adults. These recommendations are expected to match new federal activity guidelines due in October from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
But don't wait for the government. Even if you have a chronic health problem or physical limitation, there are safe ways to improve fitness and well-being. Any delay can increase the risk of injury and make it harder to recover.
UNFAMILIARITY AND FEAR
Dr. Miriam E. Nelson, lead author of the new recommendations, has said that “with every increasing decade of age, people become less and less active.”
“But,” Nelson said, “the evidence shows that with every increasing decade, exercise becomes more important in terms of quality of life, independence and having a full life. So as of now, Americans are not on the right path.”
Jim Concotelli of the Horizon Bay Senior Communities in Tampa, who oversees fitness and wellness program development for communities for the elderly in several states, noted this year that many older Americans were unfamiliar with exercise activities and feared that they would cause injury and pain. Yet by strengthening muscles, he said, they can improve joints and bones, and function with less pain and less risk of injury.
The key is to start slowly and build gradually as ability and strength improve. Most important is simply to start – now – perhaps under the guidance of a fitness professional.
A BASIC PROGRAM
Until recently, physical activity recommendations for all ages have emphasized aerobics, or cardiovascular conditioning. For those unable to do 30 minutes at a time, the activities can be broken up into three 10-minute intervals a day.
For people who prefer indoor workouts, a treadmill, step machine or exercise bike can provide excellent aerobic training. Those unable to do weight-bearing exercise might try swimming or water aerobics. Keep in mind that 30 minutes a day of aerobic activity five days a week is the minimum recommendation. More is better and can reduce the risk of chronic disease related to inactivity.
Contrary to what many active adults seem to believe, physical fitness does not end with aerobics. Strength training has long been advocated by the National Institute on Aging.
Strength training can be done in a gym on a series of machines, each working a different set of major muscle groups: hips, legs, chest, back, shoulders, arms and abdomen. Or it can be done at home with resistance bands or tubes, hand-held barbells or dumbbells or even body weight. THE NEW MIX
The new recommendations add flexibility and balance to the mix. Improving balance and reducing the risk of falls is critical as you age – if you fall, break your hip and die of pneumonia, aerobic capacity will not save you. Ten minutes a day stretching legs, arms, shoulders, hips and trunk can help assure continued mobility, and daily exercises like standing on one foot and then the other can improve balance.