Too Old to Exercise? Not True
Can a person be too old or too weak to exercise? Not according to Chhanda Dutta, Ph.D., chief of clinical gerontology at the National Institute on Aging. There is no such thing, she says.
"It used to be part of the stereotype that when people get older, they get frail and exercise gets dangerous," Dr. Dutta says. "That's just not true. What we now know is that it is more dangerous not to exercise.
"There's a lot to gain out of just moving," she adds.
Gayle Doll, Ph.D., agrees. Dr. Doll is director of the Center on Aging at Kansas State University. "When people give up exercise," she says, "they give up a lot of living. There's no one who won't benefit from exercise."
She points to studies involving people in nursing homes who started doing weight-training exercises in their 90s. "The men in those studies all got stronger. One no longer needed help to get up and use the bathroom at night. Another actually got rid of his walker."
Reasons to start
"A lot of people think about exercise," says Dr. Doll. "Contemplation is a necessary step. The problem, though, is you can get stuck there, sometimes for years." One way to get unstuck is to focus on the benefits of exercise.
"When you exercise, you gain more strength and flexibility. That means you can function better," Dr. Doll says. "You can do things like reach to get something off the top shelf. Your balance gets better to help prevent falls. Your mood will improve, and you'll be able to think better."
She says that although Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia can't be prevented, some studies suggest that exercise can delay the associated mental deterioration if they do develop.
However, although some studies have shown an association between exercise and a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease and cognitive decline, the National Institutes of Health says that researchers still aren't sure whether these factors can actually prevent the disease.
David Haber, Ph.D., is associate director of the Fisher Institute for Wellness and Gerontology at Ball State University. He points out that exercise can relieve or help prevent such illnesses as heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and depression. "It even makes people look better. It helps gain back the muscle that is lost when people become inactive."
Keep it simple, make it fun
If you haven't exercised in a while, you may feel it's too much work. But it doesn't have to be. "You don't need to go to a gym or buy expensive equipment," Dr. Dutta says. "All you need is to get up and move."
Before starting, it's important to have your doctor give you an honest assessment of your physical condition. "Any undiagnosed problem—pain, a chronic cough, difficulty breathing, mental issues—should be reviewed with your doctor," says Dr. Dutta.
Dr. Haber advises people to start with simple, fun exercises. "Trying to do too much too soon," he says, "can lead to injury and cause a person to become discouraged. And if it's not fun, you won't keep doing it."
Taking short walks is one way to start. Dancing is another. "There are a lot of different kinds of dancing," he says. "Square dancing, ballroom dancing, line dances. Some people decide to garden. Even playing Ping-Pong can be good if it gets you to move. The key to making it work for you is to start slow and gradually build up over time to the level you want to be at."
Whatever exercise you do should feel good, Dr. Doll says. The old saying "no pain no gain" isn't true, she adds. "Pain is a sign you are doing something wrong. If you have pain, or find you get out of breath when you exercise, you should check with your doctor."
The key to being safe and to getting the most out of your exercise is to monitor the intensity.
"There are two good ways to do that," says Dr. Haber. "One is body temperature." If you're exercising at the right level, it should make your body slightly warmer. The other way to monitor your level is to keep track of your breathing. "Your breathing should get faster," Dr. Haber says. "But you shouldn't be breathless. If you can't talk while you exercise you are overdoing it."
Stretching is a good exercise to improve flexibility. "To avoid injury, your muscles should be warm when you stretch," Dr. Haber says. "That means you need to stretch after you exercise, not before."