Who says that the sun-filled, longer days of summer are only for athletic activity of the young? Getting active means staying active, and I tell my patients this is particularly true in the senior population. What better time than summer to embark on some new, active pursuits that ultimately lead to longer years of independent living and overall improved well-being.
Older patients frequently come to see me complaining of problems in the muscles, joints and bones. Regular exercise can slow the loss of muscle mass, strengthen bones and reduce joint and muscle pain. Research has shown that just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity provides benefit. I emphasize that this does not need to be vigorous – low intensity is better than nothing. In my view, the key is to do something that can be enjoyed and then try to do it on a regular basis.
Walking and swimming are terrific ways to stay active and provide minimal stress on the joints. Even yardwork or walking rather than riding when playing golf can have healthy benefits. It is never too late to start, and strength training becomes more important than ever in the older population. Strength training helps to improve strength and overall functional ability.
A significant percent of the senior patients I see in the office suffer from arthritic pain where the smooth, cartilaginous surface of the joint is worn from years of living or sometimes from trauma or hereditary factors. Osteoarthritis is one of the leading causes of disability in people over the age of 55. I tell my patients to stay active – exercise strengthens the joints and the surrounding muscles. It helps to reduce stiffness and associated pain.
Particularly in women, a major public health problem is fragility fractures. In post-menopausal women, lack of estrogen production leads to a precipitous drop in bone density and risk for subsequent osteoporosis. Weight-bearing exercise – walking, jogging and weight-lifting – help to stimulate bone growth and ultimately makes the bones healthier. Stimulating bone growth and preventing osteoporosis through exercise should be an important part of the senior lifestyle. Once activity is stopped, benefits disappear quickly.
It’s not unusual for people to stop exercising when they develop soreness after starting a new program. The key is to start out slowly and to maintain the activity. Sometimes soreness develops in the early stages and then disappears as exercise becomes more regular. My advice is if one activity causes consistent pain or seems to aggravates an arthritic joint, switch to something else. Of course, stop if swelling becomes severe or significant pain develops.
So, take advantage of the beautiful summer weather and start moving. Start small, but be consistent – live your life! Preserved independence and healthier senior years will be the reward.