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Fitness Focus Copy-and-Share: Exercise for Older Adults

Thompson, Dixie L. Ph.D., FACSM

ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: May-June 2008 - Volume 12 - Issue 3 - p 4
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31817046c1
Departments: Fitness Focus Copy-and-Share

This copy-and-share column provides practical information about exercise for older adults.

Dixie L. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, is the director of the Center for Physical Activity and Health and a professor in the Department of Exercise, Sport, and Leisure Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Engaging in regular physical activity yields many benefits, regardless of age. For children, exercise is important in healthy growth and development. Preventing chronic disease and helping maintain an appropriate body weight are among the most important exercise-related benefits for individuals of all ages. The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recently published physical activity recommendations for older adults. This statement encourages various types of regular activity but with caveats based on health and physical ability. This recommendation is for individuals aged 65 years or older and for those aged 50 years or older who have a disease or functional impairment.

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Aerobic activity is critical for preventing chronic disease and helping control weight. Individuals should engage in at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity on 5 days per week or at least 20 minutes of vigorous activity on 3 days per week. A combination of moderate and vigorous activity can be used to meet this recommendation. Using an intensity scale of 0 (effort while sitting) to 10 (all-out effort), moderate activity is a 5 to 6 effort with noticeable increases in heart rate and breathing. Vigorous exercise, 7 to 8 on the effort scale, leads to large increases in heart rate and breathing. Individuals with disease or limited functional capacity may start with shorter and less intense exercise and gradually work toward higher goals.

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All people lose muscle as they age but especially after the age of 50. Muscle-strengthening exercises help to offset some of this loss. Additionally, these exercises can help promote good bone health. On at least 2 days per week, older adults should engage in activities that promote muscle strength and endurance. Many activities can meet this objective including traditional weightlifting programs, calisthenics, and exercises using resistance bands. Eight to ten exercises that work the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body should be chosen. For each exercise, 10 to 15 repetitions should be performed.

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Falls are a major cause of disability in older adults. Although evidence is difficult to obtain using standard research methods, muscle-strengthening exercises, flexibility training, and activities to improve balance may be helpful in reducing the likelihood of falling. Good range of motion in joints (i.e., good flexibility) makes everyday movement easier. To help with flexibility, individuals should do stretching exercises for at least 10 minutes on 2 or more days per week. Balance exercises should be done routinely (3 or more days per week) and must be based on individual skill level. For some people, practicing standing on one foot might be good balance exercise, whereas for others, standing up without holding onto something is a big challenge.

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For individuals with existing disease, activities should be performed at a level that will help alleviate symptoms and/or treat the disease. The amount and type of activity will be individualized based on needs and abilities. Physicians, physical therapists, and fitness professionals can determine the type of program that is most appropriate. Activity plans for older adults should address all of the areas listed above and should include appropriate guidance on progression and strategies for adherence.

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Older adults can benefit greatly from regular physical activity. Although activity may take a form different from that recommended for younger people, the benefits are dramatic. Reducing sedentary behavior will help prevent/treat chronic disease and help maintain functional capacity, a key to independent living.

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© 2008 American College of Sports Medicine