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Healthy Living

Why is Exercise So Important for Seniors?

It’s a fact: These days, we are living longer than ever before. And as we age, most of us look for ways to not just live longer but to also live well.

One of the best ways to do that, says Torrance Memorial Physician Network primary care physician and family medicine practitioner Nicole Alexander, MD, is to keep moving. “There’s definitely a genetic component to how we age, and there are things you can avoid to nudge your body toward the positive, such as not drinking or smoking. But exercise—cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training—is the best way to get blood flowing to the brain, which is key to aging well,” she says.

In addition to her medical degree, Dr. Alexander has a degree from the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, founded by Andrew Weil, MD, and she specializes in integrative weight loss. She uses the tools she learned in this intense integrative program in her own practice. Advantage asked her how she counsels her senior patients on exercise and aging.

Dr. Alexander, you have spoken about the ABCs of aging. What are they?

Psychologist Alan Castel wrote a book on aging, “Better with Age,” and he says the ABCs for successful aging are A for attitude and activity, B for balance and C for connectedness or community.

You consider exercise a crucial component to aging well and staying healthy. Why?

Because it checks a lot of boxes. Physical motion is lotion. When you use your joints you stimulate cartilage growth and flexibility, so yoga is a great activity. Exercise enhances your moods by elevating serotonin levels. And it has been proven that because of the enhanced blood flow to the brain, exercise can decrease cognitive decline. In fact, it has been shown to be the only thing that works to prevent or decrease Alzheimer’s disease.

What else can exercise do for seniors?

When you are older it’s imperative to keep your heart and brain healthy. Movement decreases the risk of heart attack and stroke because you are exercising that muscle, and it also has been shown to decrease blood pressure. Research has found the benefits include increased mobility and balance and a decrease in diabetes, obesity, colon and breast cancer, and anxiety and depression.

How should someone get started?

The recommendation is for 30 minutes of moderate exercise, five days a week. I always recommend talking to your doctor about it first, and start slow and low. Start with 10 minutes of walking, if that’s what you like to do. When you work up to longer workouts, try to get two days of weight or strength training and five days of cardiovascular activity, like walking or dancing. Also try to get flexibility and balance work in—tai chi is excellent for balance.

What types of exercise are most beneficial?

Yoga is good for balance, flexibility and strength. There are apps for yoga I really like, and the YMCA has a sliding scale for classes, which makes it affordable. Swimming is excellent, especially if you have joint issues, knee or hip pain, or balance problems. The only time I would recommend against swimming exclusively is if you have osteoporosis—you need higher impact and weight-bearing activity to strengthen your bones. Going to classes also helps you stay connected, so I highly recommend water aerobics classes, which tend to be offered in the later mornings when the gym is quieter and catered to retired people. The more boxes you can check, the more likely you are to do it.

Are there any types of exercise that should be approached with caution?

I’m not a fan of marathons for seniors—I think that’s something people do for a mental benefit, not a physical one. But I don’t think we need to do that sort of extreme exercise. Go ahead and run, but monitor your body for pain—especially chest pain—and shortness of breath.

What about weight training?

A lot of studies show the benefits of weight training for seniors. Because our muscles atrophy and get weaker as we get older, we need to try and maintain muscle mass. Weight training will do that and will also help increase our metabolism, so it’s important. The recommendation is two non-consecutive days, doing 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise, making sure by the last rep you are really tired. You can do your whole-body routine or work your upper the first day, then your lower body the second day.

And what are the social benefits of group exercise and sports?

The National Institute of Aging division of the National Institutes of Health has published many studies on the social benefits of exercise, and they also publish an exercise guide for seniors. The National Council on Aging website has a good fall prevention guide. Both are great resources.

Preventing falls is very much a key to healthy aging. When people start falling unexpectedly, they need to see a doctor right away. They can get gait and stability training as well as balance and strength training, and a portable alert system so they don’t go down without help.

Nicole Alexander, MD, is a primary care physician with the Torrance Memorial Physician Network. She practices at 3333 Skypark Drive in Torrance and can be reached at 310-784-6300. Torrance Memorial offers many classes on fall prevention, tai chi, yoga and strength training. Please refer to the Torrance Memorial classes portal for the schedule.