Spending time on fitness basics, such as strength and balance, will go a long way to improve your quality of life as you age.
Anyone who regularly spends time in a gym likely has some pretty specific reasons for being there — to lose weight, protect against disease, train for an event — just to name a few. But generally speaking, our motivation for working out evolves with age.
According to one study, people in mid-life and beyond are motivated to exercise for many reasons. Older people are just as interested in looking good and controlling their weight as their younger counterparts, and who doesn’t want to feel better? Studies have shown that the majority of people who exercise, regardless of age, do so to improve or maintain their health, but older adults are more likely to site stress reduction and mental alertness as additional reasons to exercise. Another common reason? Improved sexual performance .
“The consumer is usually interested in looking good and being fit when they’re younger. As they get a little older, they’re looking to feel a little bit better, not get so tired and winded at work or chasing after the kids. . . . Eventually we want to be healthier and be more functional, make life a little easier for ourselves when we get older,” said Neal Pire, FACSM, an exercise physiologist at H&H fitness, a medical fitness facility in Oradell, New Jersey.
Although you may not find it difficult to perform activities of daily living now, don’t wait until you’re older to start working on the skills that support them.
“It’s unfortunate that so many of us wait to work on balance, for example, until we’re already challenged in the balance department,” Pire said. But the way to address this deficit may not be what you’d think. It’s a fact that skeletal muscle mass declines (sarcopenia) as we age, but most people don’t focus on maintaining or improving their strength as they get older. Why is this relevant?
“Strength has been shown to be a huge proponent of balance,” Pire said. Improving strength has a positive effect on balance because the stronger you are the better able you are to control your movement, which translates into better balance. This in turn means fewer falls and injuries, a major concern for many older adults.
If you haven’t been active for a while, or if your exercise routine has been limited to walking or other activities that don’t involve strength conditioning, Pire recommends a progression of movement that can be modified to make it more challenging as you get stronger. Make sure you talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Start with a basic squat. Find a sturdy chair. Stand with your back to the chair, feet hip-width apart like you are going to sit down. Squat back and just lightly tap the seat of the chair with your glutes and come back up. You’ll lean forward slightly during the movement, but keep you’re your back straight, your head up, and your abs engaged. As you build strength and confidence you can practice the squat without the chair and achieve a fuller range of motion.
“It’s a bilateral (using both limbs in unison) movement that you’re going to use all the time,” Pire said.
The rear lunge is a unilateral movement, meaning your limbs, in this case your legs, work independently. Unilateral movements help strengthen your core, which has to be engaged more actively for balance.
Stand with your feet hip width apart. Initially, place your right hand on your chair or a countertop for balance. Engage your core and take a step back with your right foot. You may lean forward slightly, but keep your back straight and your head up and in line with your spine. Lower yourself by bending at your hips and knees. Come back up. Repeat on the other side.
“The reason I recommend backward instead of forward is because it’s less stressful on the front knee, so it makes it a little easier to do,” Pire said. If you have arthritis or another condition in the kneecap or around the knee, this exercise is less likely to irritate that problem.
Short lunge with a reach
Once you’ve mastered those two movements, Pire recommends progressing to “a short lunge with a little bit of a reach.”
Picture yourself. Your grandson comes running over and you’re going to reach down to about knee level to pick him up. “That little short lunge with a reach is really a very functional movement because you’re going to do that with your grandkids, or maybe you lunge forward to pick up a bag of groceries.”
Stand next to your chair or a counter with your feet shoulder width apart. Engage your abs and take a medium step forward with your right leg. Steady yourself if necessary. Lower yourself slightly by bending at the hips and both knees. Keeping your back straight, extend both arms, exhale, and lean forward, bringing your hands to about knee level. Hold for a moment. Inhale and bring your torso to the upright position. Push off with your right heel and return to the standing position. Repeat on the other side.
“The whole premise in that progression is to look at what you do in life and try to mimic it so that you’re able to do it more efficiently when you have to,” Pire said.
Pire recommends doing these exercises one after another, starting with 10 repetitions for each. Do more or fewer based on your experience and fatigue level. Listen to your body. If you ever feel pain while exercising, particularly chest or joint pain, stop.
You can do these exercises anywhere with your bodyweight alone. To increase difficulty, you can add weights, soup cans, or bags of groceries, but master the basic movements first and progress from there.
April 08, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA