Exercise is vital for health of senior citizens


For the Mirror

In a nation obsessed with youth, fitness is equated with taut skin and a toned, well-muscled physique. Yet even the oldest and frailest adults, such as elderly residents of nursing homes, can gain significant health benefits –– physically and mentally –– from exercise.

According to the National Institute on Aging, a part of the National Institutes of Health, recent studies involving sedentary nursing home patients in their 80s and 90s have demonstrated the overwhelmingly positive results of regular exercise.

Those findings are even more compelling in light of additional research that has shown older adults can hurt their health far more by not exercising, according to Dr. Jonathan Musher, vice president of medical affairs for nursing home company Beverly Healthcare, which operates a facility in Federal Way.

“Elderly patients often have such an awareness of the fragility of their health that they avoid doing the very things that could improve it,” said Musher. “The first step toward breaking the cycle of inactivity is usually to overcome their resistance.”

AEGIS Therapies, a Beverly company, and Nautilus HPS offer a program, called Freedom Through Functionality, in nursing homes. The exercise programs are designed to enhance functional independence and improve quality of life for seniors. The overall program is being tested in eight Beverly nursing homes throughout the country, and if successful, it is expected to grow to more than 400 locations over the next several year,s including Beverly and non-Beverly nursing homes that are served by AEGIS Therapies.

By starting slowly and building up gradually, those who have become physically frail from inactivity can more than double their strength in a short period of time. In addition, regular exercise can help prevent or delay the effects of many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

On a more personal level, elderly people who exercise regularly feel better overall, have more energy and often become more independent. For those who have had to rely on others for basic activities of daily living like dressing or bathing, simply gaining the strength to again perform some or all of these tasks can help restore dignity and confidence.

Because many older people have multiple medical problems, it is critical to get a physician’s approval before undertaking an exercise program. Unless there are medical reasons preventing physical activity, a consulting doctor can provide a patient with safe guidelines and specific, easy exercises.

Musher said exercising seniors who live in nursing homes have the added safety advantage of being continually monitored by skilled medical staff.

There are exercises that can be performed without equipment. A can of food, for instance, serves nicely as a one-pound weight. In fact, a successful exercise program requires little more than time and commitment.

The key is to exercise on a long-term, regular basis, Musher said. The recommended level for light to moderate physical activity is 30 minutes each time, several days a week. The types of exercises that give seniors the most health benefits fall into four areas:

• Endurance. These exercises help the heart, lungs and circulatory system work more efficiently, increasing energy levels and stamina.

• Strength. Lifting weights or exercising against resistance increases muscle strength and mass and makes bones stronger, which can slow or reverse bone-loss due to osteoporosis.

• Balance. Broken hips and other injuries caused by falling are a serious problem for seniors, leading to disability and a loss of independence. Improving balance helps lower the risk of falls.

• Flexibility. Stretching exercises improve range of motion in the arms, legs and back, and can also help prevent falls.

How can you help your loved one begin? Allow him or her to work at a comfortable pace (perhaps even join in), building up gradually to include all four categories of exercise. Encourage their efforts, and celebrate even small improvements in health or physical ability. Most importantly, help him or her to stick with it.

Jon Clontz is executive director of Beverly Healthcare in Federal Way. He can be reached at 835-7453.

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