Exercise, cognitive and emotional health impact healthy aging
By: Erin Louks-Smith, MD
Healthy aging – it’s probably safe to say that it’s a goal for every one of us. Last month, an article outlined how nutrition can have a positive effect on aging. This month we’ll look at two other important lifestyle factors as they relate to aging: activity levels, and cognitive and emotional health.
The benefits of exercise to seniors are irrefutable. Research shows that staying active can help prevent or delay numerous diseases or disabilities. In addition, it’s been shown that even frail seniors can improve their health with moderate exercise and physical activity.
A study published in the “Journal of the American Geriatric Society” found that inactivity doubles the risk of mobility problems as we age, while vigorous activity has the opposite effect.
While exercise is beneficial and can improve your health, men over 40 and women over 50 should check with their physician before starting any exercise program.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends a combination of four types of exercise for seniors and older adults. Each type works with others to help maintain your physical independence. The four categories are endurance, strength, balance and flexibility exercises.
Endurance exercises get your heart pumping and you breathing harder. Start gradually and aim for 30 minutes a day five to seven days a week. You don’t have to get your 30 minutes all at once. Opt for three 10-minute workouts, if that works better for you.
While endurance exercises should get you breathing harder, they shouldn’t take your breath away. If you can talk without any trouble, you probably aren’t working hard enough. If you can’t talk at all, you probably are working too hard. Examples of endurance exercises include brisk walking, swimming, biking and climbing stairs.
Strength-building exercises build or maintain your muscles and increase your metabolism. How important is this for senior? You’ve heard the saying, “Use it or lose it.” This is true for your muscles. When muscles aren’t used, they waste away, at any age.
When doing strength-building exercises, try to keep your movements smooth and fluid. Breathe out while you are using your muscles, breathe in when your muscle relaxes. This helps keep your blood pressure at a steady level.
Vary your strength exercises during the week, so that each major muscle group is used twice each week. Start with smaller weights and gradually build up your strength over time. Stretch your muscles between exercises.
Balance exercises build leg muscles and help prevent falls and broken bones. They can help you maintain your mobility.
When first starting, hold onto an object, such as a table or chair, for balance. Don’t push yourself so you are in danger of falling. Start gradually and make sure you feel steady before loosening your grip or letting go of the table or chair. Exercises might include raising one leg up or to the side, as well as hip extensions or flexions.
Flexibility exercises maintain and increase your range of motion. They won’t increase your strength or endurance, but they can give you more freedom of movement and work best when combined with other types of exercises.
Use slow, smooth fluid movements when stretching. Don’t jerk or bounce. Stretch until you feel just a slight pull. Stretching shouldn’t be painful. Stretch exercises should be combined with strength and endurance sessions.
Maintaining cognitive and emotional health
A study, published in the journal, “Neurology,” found that exercise can slow cognitive decline – creating a link between the way the body and mind ages. This link goes both ways. Your physical being can affect your mental capabilities, and vice versa. Therefore, an important component to healthy aging is maintaining your cognitive abilities.
There are a number of things you can do to “exercise” your brain, just like you are exercising your body. Again, the phrase, “Use it or lose it,” comes to mind. Use your intellect on a daily basis. Read a good book. Learn to knit. Play a musical instrument. Learn a new card game. Do crossword puzzles.
Stay socially connected. This can help you improve your cognitive and emotional health. Keep in touch with friends. Join a church group. Visit family members. Volunteer your time and talents. It’s known that people who feel connected to others are more likely to thrive than those who are socially isolated.
Maintain hobbies. If you find there is an activity you can no longer do, try to find another activity to replace it. For instance, if you can no longer run, you might try walking. Replacing lost activities can help you keep a positive attitude and sense of well-being.
Relax. Studies show that just 20 minutes a day of relaxation can do wonders for the mind and body. Try meditation, quiet time, a warm bath or whatever works for you.
Laugh. It’s not only fun, but beneficial as well. Laughter can lower stress levels and your blood pressure while boosting your immune system. It may help you sleep better. Best of all, it produces a general sense of well-being.
Growing older is a natural part of life. Thankfully, the options and opportunities available to aging adults are greater than ever before. With healthy lifestyle choices, seniors are able to maintain a quality of life well into their golden years.