Whether we like it or not, we know that exercise is important. Exercise becomes even more valuable as we age and our heart and bones may weaken. In women, for example, bone density drops sharply at the time of menopause — exercise can work to reverse that.
If your parent already likes to exercise then he or she has passed the first hurdle. If your parent is not motivated to exercise, connecting with a friend, class or group can encourage him or her to put on sneakers and get moving on a regular basis. You also may want to get a personal trainer for one or two sessions so your elderly parent can learn how to exercise safely. And always be sure to consult your parent’s doctor before initiating the start of any type of exercise routine.
If you live nearby your parent, this may be the perfect opportunity for the two of you to do something good for yourselves together. You’ll both feel better!
When deciding how to help your parent begin an exercise routine, take note of the following four types of exercise that will work together to greatly improve overall health:
Stretching not only will make your parent feel better, but also can help prevent injuries from exercise or regular daily movement. Some tips for stretching include:
- Slow but steady. Make sure your parent moves slowly and smoothly when stretching any muscle — one should never jerk into a stretched position.
- Timing is everything. Muscles should be stretched until a slight extension is felt, never any pain. With continued practice, the stretch can be held for up to 30 seconds. Be aware that it might be difficult for an elderly person to do a full stretch, and the use of a towel or stretch cord might be needed.
- Warm up (even if your parent lives in a warm climate). Cold, tight muscles get injured more easily. Stretch or walk a bit before other exercise, then have a more extensive stretching session after working out.
- Cover the basics. Essential muscles to stretch include the calves and hamstrings in the legs, the shoulders, and triceps in the arms, and the upper and lower back.
- Position yourself. Depending on own comfort level and ability, stretching can be done standing up against a wall, sitting in a chair, or lying on the floor.
- Outfit correctly. To avoid slipping and falling, bare feet or sneakers are best. Socks alone can be dangerous, particularly if exercising on an uncarpeted floor. A thin, stable mat (like a yoga mat) may help, but using a thick mat for standing stretches may cause a loss of balance and possibly, a fall.
Even a small improvement in strength can help improve your parent’s ability to sit, stand, walk and carry things like bags of groceries. If he or she is not accustomed to lifting weights, start without them until your parent is ready to progress. A basic set of hand weights are not expensive and can be purchased at the local sporting goods store. Some tips for strength training include:
- Start small and build up. Use no weight at first and test your parent’s ability to do the exercises, then add weight in small increments. Start with five repetitions and work your way up to 12 before adding more weight.
- Be smooth. As with stretching, take it slow. Do not try to lift a weight too fast. Lift it carefully, hold it in position for a second or two, then return back to resting position slowly.
- Balance the exercises. Be sure to consistently work different parts of the body. Upper and lower body exercises can be done in one session or can be divided into separate sessions on alternate days.
- Don’t forget your back. As people age, the back can stiffen and become more sensitive. Back strengthening exercises will help with overall health and fitness.
- Breathe normally. Your body will work better if you are breathing comfortably during exercise. Do not hold your breath.
It may sound like an intimidating word to your mom or dad, but reassure your elderly parent that he or she does not have to train for a marathon or the Olympics to build endurance. Walking, jogging, swimming or any other aerobic exercise done on a consistent basis will do the trick. Here are some tips:
- Find an activity they will enjoy. If your parent hates to swim, don’t encourage joining a local pool! If the idea of exercising solely for the sake of exercising isn’t appealing, have him or her try dancing, gardening, walking a friend’s dog or even window shopping at the mall. The most important thing is to get moving in some way.
- Baby steps. Don’t expect to do too much too fast. Maybe a walk down the block, one lap around the local track or one trip around the mall is all you can do to start. Just find your comfort zone and work from there. Even the smallest improvement is an improvement nonetheless.
- Listen to your body. Make sure your elderly parent knows to stop immediately if feeling lightheaded, dizzy or faint.
- Hydrate. Drink water before, during and after exercise. Post-workout, some juice or an energy drink can help replenish electrolytes. If your parent feels thirsty, he or she has probably waited too long to drink.
- Check your heart rate. According to the American Heart Association, the average 65-year-old should aim for a target heart rate of between 78 and 128 beats per minute, or a maximum of 155 beats per minutes. However, everyone is different and a doctor or certified personal trainer should help determine the ideal rate for your elderly parent based on age, fitness level and overall health. In addition, some medications can alter heart rate. A heart rate monitor will help your parent keep track while exercising. But remember — always check with your parent’s doctor before starting any exercise regimen.
It is common to lose postural balance as we age, but it can also be improved with exercise. Some tips, from the National Institutes of Health:
- Add balance exercise to a strengthening routine. Incorporating balance exercises into your parent’s health and fitness routine will help improve and maintain a normal, functioning equilibrium. Be certain your elderly parent does not try balance exercise on his or her own.
- Keep balance on their mind. Any amount of time and effort your elderly parent can spend improving postural balance will help physically and psychologically. Falls are of great concern to the elderly population, and a little effort to improve balance can go a long way toward maintaining good health and independence.