all of us are aging, maybe aging needs to be more clearly defined;
let's say sixty-something, and beyond. Actually, even that isn't an
adequate delimiter. The problem is really how to deal with physical
problems, like arthritis or lack of muscle strength and endurance,
problems normally associated with aging, but which can appear at any
age. So, if the shoe fits, wear it, as they say.
Exercise for the aging can be looked at as
a sort of "fountain of youth." It can help with weight management,
improve skeletal-muscle strength and endurance, cardiopulmonary
fitness, flexibility, and enhance feelings of well-being, possibly
improve your immune system, and your mental health.
Of course nutrition - diet - is a very
significant factor in this issue, but is outside of the scope of
this article. We will only address the exercise aspect of weight
It is widely accepted that permanent weight
loss from diet alone is pretty futile. Exercise is now an integral
part of any permanent weight loss program. The two go hand-in-hand:
a sensible, healthy diet (often referred to as a low-fat diet), and
exercise seems to be the only successful way to maintain long-term
weight control. Exercise is important in this formula not just for
immediate calorie expenditure, but for increasing the Resting
Metabolic Rate (RMR-formerly known as basal metabolic
rate, or BMR) so that we expend more calories all day long - even
during sleep. [Note that there is some thought that this factor has
little effect on weight control.] Exercise can perform this little
miracle by increasing muscle tissue, which is more metabolically
active than, say, "fat."
And take notice that an exercised body is a
more attractive and functional body.
This section addresses the physiological
changes in the cardiopulmonary system (the heart, blood flow, lungs)
effected by exercise.
Age is often accompanied by a rise in both
systolic (pressure as blood is pumped out of the heart) and
diastolic (pressure as the heart relaxes prior to the next beat)
blood pressures. Both can be lowered by exercise; which increases
the size and strength of the heart, and the blood supply to the
heart. A result of this is a lowering of the heart rate. Lowering of
the heart rate and blood pressure reduces risk of heart disease. In
the event of a heart attack despite exercise, survival is more
likely; as are future heart attacks or strokes less likely.
Maximum oxygen uptake ( the infamous
VO2max) decreases with age. It is, in essence, the amount of
oxygen that we can utilize during vigorous exercise. Exercise
produces higher energy by raising VO2max, which increases your
Respiration is improved as the
breathing muscles are strengthened. Normally, respiratory muscles
weaken and shorten with aging; which, along with decreased
elasticity of lung tissue, decreases breathing capacity.
Exercise decreases triglycerides and
cholesterol in the blood, which reduces risk of developing
harmful blood clots; thereby reducing risk of heart attack and
While lowering cholesterol levels, the
level of HDL increases, which helps to stave off heart
And, finally, exercise seems to raise
the level of TPA, which decreases the clot-forming substance
fibrinogen, a further protection against heart, and blood
Aging is normally accompanied by loss of
muscle strength and bone density. Both problems are mitigated by
exercise. Tendons and ligaments are also strengthened by exercise,
which helps to stabilize joints, which reduces risk of falls - a
serious problem for the elderly. And, stronger joints enhance
overall mobility, as well.
Please note that there is no age beyond
which exercise cannot be a benefit to one's well-being.
A final note here is that exercise can also
help to reduce back pain, among its myriad of physical benefits.
Exercise can help to improve posture, and poor posture can cause
lower back pain. It can also help sufferers of arthritis, and other
There is some support for the idea that
exercise enhances the immune system, in general. It may also reduce
the risk of getting some cancers - breast and colorectal. It
definitely helps prevent development of diabetes in adults, and
improves digestion - it is a natural laxative. We have already
mentioned its help in preventing falls, and if you end up in a
hospital for surgery, the fitter you are, the better your chances of
a successful recovery.
Positive results of exercise in this
category are pretty subjective, but there are numerous potential
results: improved self-image and self-confidence, relaxation from
mental stress [Very real, in my experience.], perhaps improved
mental acuity, increased sociability, and help to overcome insomnia.
It is a good idea to meet with a physician
before starting an exercise program, and explain to him/her what you
are planning to do; then, with approval, you can feel safe about
starting your program.
There are several health risk factors,
which should be either eliminated by you, or at least discussed with
your physician as part of your pre-exercise medical consultation.
They are: 1) cigarette smoking, 2) obesity (30% or more overfat), 3)
diabetes, 4) high blood pressure (untreated), 5) high blood
cholesterol level, and 6) family history of death under age 55 from
heart (or unexplained) reasons.
GENERAL EXERCISE SAFETY GUIDELINES
1) Drink lots of water - before, during,
and after exercise - keep hydrated.
2) Warm-up and cool-down. Start an exercise
session with a warm-up. Some guidelines for a very thorough
- Limber up for 6-7 minutes. This may be
slow walking, pedalling on a stationary bicycle, or some similar
- Rhythmic exercise for 5-6 minutes. This
is a series of movements designed to move specific muscles, to get
them fully prepared to do the actual resistance exercises.
- Very mild stretching for 1-2 minutes.
The warm-up slightly raises internal body
temperature, as well as slightly elevating the heart and breathing
rates. A warm body is ready for more intense exercise - joints and
muscles are loosened up and ready to go. It should be noted that
weights should not be used during a warm-up.
For a cool-down, the following
suggestions are offered:
- A standing cool-down should last about
5-7 minutes. This may be easy walking, or a very gentle ride on a
stationary cycle, or other aerobic activity.
- Stretching for at least 5 minutes.
A cool-down is designed to allow heart rate
and breathing to gradually return to normal. An abrupt termination
of an exercise session can result in pooling of blood in the lower
extremities, which puts a strain on the cardiovascular system - the
heart has to work especially hard to get the blood back up to the
Note that it is recommended that the head
not be allowed to drop below the chest - some older exercisers may
faint as a result.
Note that this cool-down description is
more applicable to an aerobic workout, and may be tailored for a
calisthenics or weight workout, which won't normally raise heart
rate and breathing to sustained high levels.
If an exerciser experiences: 1) dizziness,
2) queasiness or nausea, 3) extreme shortness of breath, or 4)
shakiness; the appropriate reaction is to slow down, or stop for a
Working a muscle to fatigue helps it grow
stronger, but don't go to the point of being completely "wasted." An
injury can result from uncontrollable, exhausted muscles -
especially as we get older.
And remember that "no pain, no gain" is not
a good indicator of just working hard. You must learn to distinguish
between real pain, and just being tired. Fatigue is one thing, and
pain is another. As we get older, tissue injuries are slower to
heal, so we should strive to avoid them.
If you experience joint pain, it is
wise to avoid the movement that caused it, but some muscle soreness
around a joint is okay. It will go away, and you will get stronger.
Unless muscle soreness is really intense, mild exercise is better
than simple rest to make it disappear.
To minimize muscle soreness:
- Fully warm-up.
- Fully cool-down
- Exercise muscles to fatigue, but
never to pain or collapse.
- Increase activity level only gradually -
about 10% at a time. Only make increases when your current level
of activity feels easy. If you get too tired, back off in
approximately 10% decrements.
Take a day off if you are really tired, and
don't exercise if you have an above normal temperature.
Don't exercise right after heavy meals -
wait about two hours. And hard exercise should be limited to five
days a week, and about one hour at-a-time - to help prevention of
Use good posture when you exercise - no
swayback, weight evenly distributed on both feet, "soft" knees,
tightened abdominal and buttock muscles, and keep your neck in-line
with your spine (i.e., if you are standing, you should be looking
forward; if you are bent 90 degrees at the hips, you should be
looking at the floor). Don't hyperextend or lock joints. And
work through a full range-of-motion. Don't do ballistic movements -
stay under control, always. Don't use momentum. And, please, don't
forget to breathe. I like to see forceful breathing (at least the
exhaling part) when training someone, so that I can easily tell, and
don't have to keep asking: "are you breathing?" Exhale on the
exertion phase, and inhale on the "return" phase. You could pass out
if you don't heed this advice. At the very least, your exercise
effort will be subverted by lack of an adequate oxygen supply.
As with all segments of the population,
there are three appropriate modes of exercise: aerobics, resistance
training, and stretching.
Before getting to formal exercise, it is
important to mention that many aging individuals find themselves
very unfit; not so much because of the aging process itself, but
from an accumulation of a mostly sedentary lifestyle - excess weight
(fat), weak muscles, a general decrease in joint flexibility, an
increased risk of getting heart disease cancer, or diabetes, and
more. These conditions make one susceptible to falls, for one thing
- a leading percentage of deaths among the elderly.
There is one simple solution - get moving,
and keep moving. Lawn work, gardening, bicycling, hiking, golf (but
walk, don't ride), tennis - any activities that are just part of
your life, but aren't formal exercise. Take the stairs instead of
the elevator. Park at the far end of a parking lot, and walk a
little. Anything is better than nothing? [I apologize for using this
trite cliché, but it is true.]
Tai Chi is A Great Exercise
Although most exercises can be modified to
suit the needs of Seniors, some forms of exercise appear to be
inherently more suitable for Seniors than others. Modified Yoga,
Tai Chi Chuan and Fusion-One are three such exercise
What is Tai Chi Chuan?
T'ai Chi (Grand or Supreme Ultimate) is best described as a series
of postures performed in a slow, effortless and continuous manner.
It is an active form of meditation, a system of physical exercise
and a method of self-defence.
The system of T'ai Chi originated in China
nearly 1,000 years ago. Its postures and movements were derived from
forms used for self-defence. Although it is generally believed that
the originator of the system was a famous Taoist monk, Chang San
Feng, some scholars and practitioners of the art, such as Jason
Ying-arng Lee, author of several books on Tai Chi, including "Tai
Chi Chuan for self-defence" (Unicorn Press, Hong Kong) question the
authenticity of this historical claim. Non-the-less, it is said that
Chang San-feng developed the system after witnessing a fight between
a snake and a crane. The crane attacked the snake repeatedly, but
the snake, through its fluid and swift movements, was able to evade
the stabbing attacks of the crane's beak. In time, the crane became
tired and fell victim to the snake. This battle showed Chang the
value of yielding in the face of strength. He saw in the encounter,
the principle of the I-Ching; the strong changing to the weak and
the weak changing to the strong.
The Many Benefits of Tai Chi
The benefits of this important art are quite numerous. As
a means of self-defence, T'ai Chi has proven to be quite effective.
Its ability to prevent certain illnesses, retard the aging process,
prolong life, improve the circulation of the blood, tone muscles,
relax tensed nerves, focus the mind and foster deep relaxation have
been expounded by doctors, both Asian and Western, for many years.
My earliest exposure to these benefits was by way of doctor Edward
C. Chou who had written the introduction to the book Lee’s Modified
Tai Chi Chuan for Health. Since that time numerous studies, both in
America and abroad, have confirmed these benefits.
A benefit of Tai Chi that will certainly be
of interest to Seniors is its capacity to assist in the prevention
and treatment of osteoporosis. We know that well over 15 million
Americans are afflicted with the condition, and that it strikes one
in four women over the age of sixty (Successful Aging by Anne C.
Averyt; page 237). Because Tai Chi places gentle stress on the legs
and connected areas, the bones involved become stronger and more
dense; a plus for those with osteoporosis and anyone wishing to
prevent the condition.
The Practice of Tai Chi
T'ai Chi or T'ai Chi Chuan is practiced by millions of
people around the world. It is an important part of the culture of
the Chinese people and it is said to be the national exercise of the
Peoples Republic of China. Although T'ai Chi may be practiced by
anyone, its very nature makes it ideal for the elderly. First of
all, the form is performed slowly and requires a minimum of time,
effort and strength. Second, it can be practiced at anytime and
requires little space. Furthermore, T'ai Chi is a relatively
inexpensive activity that may be performed by individuals or by
groups of people.