Regular exercise can slow physical decline, provide community for seniors


Regular exercise can help senior citizens slow down age-induced muscle and bone decline and preserve aerobic capabilities, and a doctor has advice and encouragement for seniors who either want to start or continue exercising.

According to Sport and Exercise Medicine Specialist Matthew Kampert of Cleveland Clinic’s South Pointe Hospital in Ohio, it is best to start exercise while young and continue throughout life.

For people looking to start exercising as seniors, he said to “start where you’re at,” consult with a doctor and focus on building up endurance.

Kampert compared physical fitness to retirement, noting that it’s important to start investing early for better results later. Seniors who started earlier should continue exercising as they age in order to lower aerobic and muscle decline.

“The earlier you start the better it is, because you can build more muscle mass and bone density and it’s easier to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness when you’re young,” he said.

Kampert explained that aerobic capacity “declines at about 7 percent per decade in females and 10 percent per decade in males” after the age of 30. He said that it is important to build this capacity at a younger age and then continue exercising to “slow the rate of decline.”

He added that a similar dynamic affects muscle mass, with humans losing about 3 to 10 percent of their muscle mass “every decade after the age of 25.”

“The only things that really preserve that is a diet adequate in protein and resistance training,” Kampert said.

“It’s important to exercise aerobically, do resistance training when you’re young so that you build that base,” he added. “It’s important to continue to do that throughout life, so that you can slow that rate of decline and be functional in old age.”

Kampert also noted that resistance training can help maintain bone density and avoid “osteopenia, which is bone thinning, or osteoporosis, which is bone wasting.”

He encouraged people who have not started exercising to do so, regardless of their age.

“It’s always better – if you’re 65 and you’re just getting started, it’s not as great as if you were 25, but it’s better than if you were 66,” Kampert said. “So, there’s no point in waiting.”

He recommended that people who want to start exercising should first receive a test from their physician. Further tests could help seniors determine their current fitness level and where they should start.

“You want to make sure you’re at least safe,” Kampert said. “A lot of people over 65 are on multiple medications. If you’re blood pressure’s not controlled and it’s 180 while you’re sitting still, imagine what it is while you start exercising.”

He said that patients who are looking to start exercising should “train first for duration before intensity.”

“The goal isn’t to make yourself so sore that you can’t do things for a week,” he said. “You want to be able to train multiple times that week so that you get that stimulus. Your body grows, adapts, recovers while you sleep and eat, and then you can do it again more frequently.”

“If you go out and just try to go as hard as you can, as fast as you can, then you’re going to not be conditioned for that, and you can get tendonitis or flare-up arthritis or even a stress fracture,” Kampert added.

He encouraged people to find a nearby “affordable fitness facility.” Exercise options could include going to the gym or using the SilverSneakers program.

Kampert recommended that people start with pin-loaded resistance machines, since they are easier to learn than free weights, though free weight and body weight exercises are also helpful.

“The internet’s a great resource too to look up different exercises, to see how they’re done appropriately,” he said.

Kampert noted that people looking to begin resistance training should start with one set of 10 to 12 repetitions “two or three times a week.” They can consider adding a second set after two weeks and a third set two weeks after that, adding further sets “once they’re getting 12 reps on all three sets.”

He encouraged seniors starting cardiovascular exercise to use a bicycle before a treadmill, noting that “it’s low impact, especially if you have a little extra weight that you’re carrying.”

Kampert also noted that ellipticals or walks outside could help, though he encouraged people to “always walk before you run.”

Citing recommendations from the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition, which was published by the Department of Health and Human Services, he said that people should engage in “at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity aerobic activity, and strength training activities at least two days a week.”

Citing findings published by the National Center for Health Statistics, Kampert added that 15.3 percent of men 65 and over met those guidelines, along with 10.8 percent of women in that age range.

“So, a very low percentage, despite the huge benefits in this patient population, which would include improved mental health, improved metabolic health, bone density, muscle mass and really, the biggest thing is the decrease in fall risk,” Kampert said.

Exercise with a community can also bring social benefits and promote accountability, noted representatives from the Kirtland Senior Center.

“The comfort level from exercising with your peers is a great reward,” said center Assistant Marianne Cicirelli.

“It can be difficult to carve out the time to focus on exercise and our own physical fitness,” said Kirtland Community and Senior Center Coordinator Teresa Szary. “Finding a supportive community that understands the process is not always easy, and Senior Centers are an important resource to bridge that gap.”

According to Szary, senior center members also mentioned “the importance of accountability, the social aspect and the flexibility of scheduling.”

“By surrounding ourselves with a community that will keep us both active and accountable, finding the motivation to exercise becomes easier, no matter our age!” she added.

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