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Physical activity and older adults

Gail Carlson, MPH, Ph.D., Continuing Medical Education, School of Medicine, University of Missouri


Do you think slowing down and poor health are a normal part of aging or the result of inactivity, disease and poor nutrition? While there is a little truth in both statements, health problems can often be helped, and even reversed, by making behavior changes. Becoming more physically active is one of the best things you can do for your health. Physical activity can reduce your risk of heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, certain cancers and osteoporosis. It contributes to increased bone strength, decreased blood pressure, better sleep, increased good cholesterol, increased metabolism and better resistance to colds. It also eases tension and reduces stress. If you are thinking about becoming more physically active, consider the following ideas.

Make it fun. Focus on what you want to do rather than on what you think you should do. You are most likely to remain physically active if you start with activities that you enjoy such as gardening, walking the dog or dancing. It is up to you to decide what will keep you coming back for more.

Think beyond endurance. Endurance or aerobic activities increase your breathing and heart rate. They help to improve the health of your heart, lungs and circulatory system. But it is also important to participate in physical activities that build muscles, maintain strength and flexibility, and improve balance. Such activities can help prevent osteoporosis, keep weight and blood pressure in check, slow down the development of arthritis, and help prevent falls - a common cause of disability and death.

Just move. Make movement a natural part of your life just like brushing your teeth - take the stairs, wash the car by hand, use a push lawn mower and use a regular vacuum. All forms of activity contribute to your overall flexibility, fitness and health. A good resource is a booklet available on the National Institute of Aging website called Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging. The booklet has lots of good ideas for people of all ages.

Stay at it. Your goal is to improve wherever you are right now. Start slowly and increase the time and intensity of your program a little bit at a time. Include all four areas: endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. What is important is to include activity as part of your regular daily routine. Try to accumulate 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (brisk walking, raking leaves, golf, dancing) on most, if not all, days of the week. You can break this up into 10-minute sessions, but be sure they add up to 30 minutes. If you feel like doing more there could be additional health benefits, at least up to a point. If you can't do 30 minutes, remember that every little bit helps.

Check with your doctor. For most people, moderate physical activity is not a health hazard. However talk to your doctor before beginning if you have existing heart trouble, chest pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, you often feel dizzy or faint, or if you have arthritis or other bone or joint problems that might become worse by improper exercise. Talk to your health provider any time you have questions about the safety of exercise for you.



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Last Updated 05/10/2010