EDITOR’S NOTE: For the purpose of this article, the term “older adults” refers to anyone age 65 or older. The guidelines discussed here will also be appropriate for adults age 50-64 with chronic conditions or functional limitations that affect their ability to be active.
Advances in medicine over the past century have resulted in declines in infectious diseases and increases in the average lifespan. As a result, chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers have now become the top causes of death. Because these conditions take time to develop, older adults have a higher relative risk. The good news is you can take action to lessen your risk or avoid many of the chronic conditions that affect older adults by addressing biological risk factors such as hypertension, obesity, and high cholesterol. In addition, you can avoid some lifestyle factors that increase risk, such as an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol abuse.
Eating well is an important component of developing a healthy, active lifestyle. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) emphasizes that following a healthy eating plan is an essential component of successful aging. The NIA recommends that all older adults follow a dietary regimen based on the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines. The major components are as follows:
— Increase your consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
— Include healthy forms of protein in your diet such as lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts;
— Limit your consumption of saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars;
— Balance the calories consumed with calories burned through physical activity to maintain a healthy weight.
With age, the metabolic rate does decrease, resulting in fewer calories required to maintain body weight. Recently, A YMCA member approached me about how much her body had changed over the years and she didn’t understand why. She explained that she had never exercised and had not changed her eating habits, and wondered why her body looked so different at age 45 than it did at age 25. The reasons for these changes have to do with a loss of muscle mass as we age, and how this loss affects our metabolic rate. If the metabolic rate drops due to the loss of muscle, we must cut back calories consumed, otherwise the extra calories consumed are stored as fat.
For older adults, and for anyone trying to lose weight, the key to staying healthy while decreasing calories is consuming nutrient-dense foods. With nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables (including cooked dry beans and peas), fruits, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, you ensure that you get the appropriate amount of vitamins and minerals while consuming fewer calories. You must be careful, however, of how you prepare these high-density foods. Preparing inappropriately (frying, adding too much sugar and salt) or eating too much of the “good thing” only defeats the purpose.
Although eating healthy can lead to a healthier weight, physical activity must be included in maintaining a healthy lifestyle for older adults. Although the interrelationships among heart disease risk factors may seem complex and are unique to each person, the World Health Organization has identified regular physical activity as possibly the single most effective way to decrease your risk.
How much physical activity do you need to stay healthy? What type of exercise is best and what level of intensity is required to maximize health benefits? Older adults often ask these question when they are about to embark on an exercise program. Although precise answers to these questions depend on a wide variety of factors, including current levels of health and fitness, prior exercise experience, and personal preference, a number of guidelines exist with regard to how much and what type of exercise older adults need.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) set some basic guidelines for the frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise for older adults. The Physical Activity Guidelines clearly state that “regular physical activity is essential for healthy aging” — not just helpful or suggested, but essential. For individuals over the age of 65 with no chronic conditions, aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, flexibility and balance training are recommended. Balance training helps with fall prevention. Older adults with chronic conditions should achieve as much physical activity as possible, within the limitations of their abilities, in consultation with their health care providers.
Aerobic exercise requires the body to move in a rhythmic fashion for a period of time. Examples include walking, jogging, biking, low-impact aerobics, certain Silver Sneakers classes, Water Aerobics, and playing tennis. Of all of these, walking is the most common aerobic activity for older adults. It is recommended that older adults accumulate a total of 150-300 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise. You can judge the intensity level by the physical exertion required for the task. Moderate intensity exercise should rate 5 or 6 on a scale of 0-10 when measuring physical exertion. The Physical Activity Guidelines also recommend that this exercise occur a minimum of five days per week.
Muscular fitness can be achieved using bands, tubing, weight machines or free weights, and can be achieved on your own, in toning classes, or Silver Sneakers classes like Muscular Skeletal Range of Motion (MSROM). Resistance training should be performed at least two days per week.
Flexibility tends to decrease with age, but you can work to maintain the flexibility you need to maintain daily activities. You should stretch to the point where you feel tightness in the muscles, but not to the point of discomfort or pain. Static stretches targeting all major muscle groups and joints should be held 15-60 seconds. These can be accomplished on your own, in Chair Yoga classes, and in Silver Sneakers® classes like MSROM.
Balance training is recommended for people who fall frequently or have mobility problems. Most balance and fall prevention programs include the following:
— Progressively more difficult postures that gradually reduce your base of support (e.g., two legged stand, semi-tandem stand, tandem stand, one legged stand);
— Dynamic movement that challenge your center of gravity (e.g., tandem walk, circle turns);
— Stressing postural muscle groups (e.g., standing on just your heels or toes);
— Reducing sensory input ( e.g., standing with eyes closed).
Balance training can be accomplished on your own, in fall prevention classes, or by attending MSROM.
Eating healthy and getting the right amount and type of physical activity can make you feel better and help you enjoy the things in life that mean the most to you. Enjoy your family and friends and live an active lifestyle by becoming a healthier you.
Mary Ganzel works at the Albany Area YMCA as senior program director. She has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Kentucky and has worked in the fitness industry for more than 25 years. She’s been certified through multiple national organizations over the years as a personal trainer, exercise test technologist, health promotion director, group exercise instructor, Cycle Reebok instructor and Pilates instructor through Cooper Institute, American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, Aerobic Fitness Association of America and the Young Mens Christian Association.