Exercise: A Guide from the National Institute on Aging

Introduction

Welcome to one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself. Exercise! Regular exercise and physical activity are very important to the health and abilities of older people. In fact, studies suggest that not exercising is risky behavior. That is why we wrote this book. We are the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, and our research is aimed at improving the health of older people.

For the most part, when older people lose their ability to do things on their own, it doesn't happen just because they have aged. More likely, it is because they have become inactive. Older inactive adults lose ground in four areas that are important for staying healthy and independent: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

Fortunately, research suggests that you can maintain or at least partly restore these four areas through exercise -- or through everyday physical activities (walking briskly or gardening, for example) that accomplish some of the same goals as exercise. What may seem like very small changes resulting from exercise and physical activity can have a big impact.

Getting Past the Barriers

You may be reluctant to start exercising, even though you've heard that it's one of the healthiest things you can do. You may be afraid that physical activity will harm you; or you might think you have to join a gym or buy expensive equipment in order to exercise. Or, you may feel embarrassed to exercise because you think it's for younger people or for people who look great in gym clothes. You may think exercise is only for people who are able to do things like jogging.

In fact, just about every older adult can safely do some form of physical activity at little or no cost. And you don't have to exercise in a public place or use expensive equipment, if you don't want to.

Even household chores can improve your health. The key is to increase your physical activity, by exercising and by using your own muscle power.

Who Can Exercise?

Studies show that, in the long term, older adults in all age groups hurt their health far more by not exercising than by exercising. As a rule, older people should stay as physically active as they can.

What can Exercise do for Me?

Most people know that exercise is good for them. Somehow, though, older adults have been left out of the picture -- until recently. Today a new picture is emerging from research: Older people of different physical conditions have much to gain from exercise and from staying physically active. They also have much to lose if they become physically inactive.

Exercise isn't just for older adults in the younger age range, who live independently and are able to go on brisk jogs, although this book is for them, too. Researchers have found that exercise and physical activity also can improve the health of people who are 90 or older, who are frail, or who have the diseases that seem to accompany aging. Staying physically active and exercising regularly can help prevent or delay some diseases and disabilities as people grow older. In some cases, it can improve health for older people who already have diseases and disabilities, if it's done on a long-term, regular basis.

What Kinds of Activities Improve Health and Ability?

Four types of exercises help older adults gain health benefits:

Endurance exercises increase your breathing and heart rate. They improve the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Having more endurance not only helps keep you healthier; it can also improve your stamina for the tasks you need to do to live and do things on your own -- climbing stairs and grocery shopping, for example. Endurance exercises also may delay or prevent many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, and others, and reduce overall death and hospitalization rates.



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