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Posted: January 31, 2008

A Priceless Gift of Health

Why Exercise is Good Medicine at Any Age

While the holidays are over, there’s still one more gift to give. It costs nothing, yet its value is priceless to caregivers and their parents. It’s the gift of graceful aging through fitness.

Finding time for fitness is something caregivers need to do for themselves -- and it’s also something they can do for their aging parents without much effort.

The benefits of exercise are there at any age, no matter how advanced. Studies repeatedly show that exercise promotes a better quality of life, especially for older adults. One study showed that older adults (78 and older) who exercise aged more gracefully than those who did not. They reported less pain and discomfort, fewer injuries and illness, and expressed a better outlook on life.

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Staying in shape has even been shown to prevent or delay some types of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. It also builds strength and stamina for other aspects of life. The findings are so powerful that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges doctors to encourage their older patients to exercise.

The thought of an exercise program often raises red flags in some older adults, says Virginia Morris, author of How to Care for Aging Parents. She says the elderly are often concerned about the risk of injury or embarrassment, or being forced into purchasing special equipment. Sometimes, she says, they’re just too comfortable in their sedentary ways.

Though Morris cautions families not to nag, there are ways to ease our aging parents into activity, no matter how little. For example, what better way to encourage them than to join them! Mike Boggs, a fitness specialist and adjunct professor at Portland Community College & Clark College in Oregon, recommends activities that address all of the components of older adult fitness: cardiovascular, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, balance, and socialization.

“Group fitness classes specific for the older adult are excellent as they incorporate all these components in one. The caregiver and parent can and should participate together,” says Boggs.

Older adults have needs that require an instructor trained to work with older adults. In addition to checking with a doctor before beginning an exercise program, be sure the chosen instructor is properly trained and certified. You can find them most often through hospitals with rehabilitation centers or research facilities affiliated with your local department of public health, the Agency on Aging, or an organization like the Arthritis Foundation. Be sure to discuss your parent’s health history with the instructor, so they can select exercises that meet your parent’s specific needs.

Fitness instructors say their main goals with older adults are to delay physical frailty and to prolong functional mobility. By focusing on functional fitness, your loved one gains or maintains the ability to perform normal everyday activities safely and independently without undue fatigue. When physical decline is identified early, and appropriate interventions are made, functional limitations that impair walking and stair-climbing and too-often result in falls and physical frailty, can be prevented.

The Senior Fitness Test, developed by Roberta E. Rikli, PhD., and C. Jessie Jones, PhD., is an effective tool for assessing functional fitness in older adults. The test can be administered by you or a doctor or exercise instructor. Ask your loved one’s doctor for details.

Once a desired fitness level is identified, achievable goals should be set for improvement or maintenance. Mike Boggs suggests making SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time element) behavioral and outcome goals. An example of a SMART behavioral goal, Boggs says, is “We will get together three times per week and walk around the park for 30 minutes during March and April.” An example of a SMART outcome goal is “We will improve our two-mile walk time in the park from 36 minutes to 28 minutes by the end of April.” Don’t forget to decide on a reward system for further motivation, perhaps a special dinner or a favorite outing.

When it’s more convenient to work out at home, exercise videos for seniors can be a good guide. Not only are they tailored to the needs of older Americans, they are effective and fun for anyone. From stretching, yoga, Pilates, and tai chi to line dancing, swing dancing and armchair dance aerobics, there is something to suit any preference. Some videos are even award-winning. The Gentle Fitness series, for example, has been recommended by the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, among others, because it improves balance and builds strength in people with a variety of health challenges from arthritis to Parkinson’s disease.

Some people, regardless of age, simply refuse to embark on anything remotely resembling exercise. When this is the case, disguise it! Francine and Robert Moskowitz, authors of Parenting Your Aging Parents: How to Protect Their Quality of Life-And Yours, emphasize physical activity as a part of daily living. Make regular and frequent movement, rather than strenuous exercise, the goal, they say.

When activity has a purpose or benefit beyond exercise, it often has more appeal. Try a daily walk to the coffee shop that gets a little longer each day. You might choose a useful activity like doing yard work, or reading the newspaper while on a stationary bike. Ann in Virginia reminds her 93-year-old mother who suffers from severe arthritis that exercise keeps her mobile and able to stay in her home. Ann cleverly gets her mom to move around the house by keeping blooming plants in the living room, her fish in the kitchen, and the TV in the den.

Also, says Ann, “If she freezes up, or becomes too weak, she won't be able to go to the salon and I will have to do her hair. That usually motivates her; no way does she want me to do her hair.”

It’s also very important to make an activity fun, especially if you want it continued long-term. Kids are fun motivators to get grandparents moving. They will boogie to oldies tunes with your parents and get them to play outdoors. “The only way my mom will exercise is if my daughter makes her do yoga,” says Sam in Texas. Both grandma and granddaughter benefit when they put in the video and do yoga routines geared for the elderly together.

One of the most popular ways for kids and their grandparents to be active together is by playing the Wii video game. This hot video game for the youngest generation is also a surprise hit with the oldest. The Wii game controller determines how the player moves on screen. In a video game of bowling, for example, the player holds the controller as he moves his arm back and then forward to simulate the actual rolling of the bowling ball. Players stand up and sit down, or they can play while sitting.

Playing the Wii raises the heart rate gently, and improves hand eye coordination. Its mild physical activity provides health benefits like strengthening bones, loosening joints, and improving balance. It also bridges the generation gap and encourages social interaction. Perhaps Rhonda Duncan of Plano, Texas, describes it best, calling it a “grandkid magnet” that gives kids another reason to spend time with their grandparents.

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Lori Zanteson is a California-based freelance writer. She specializes in topics related to families and can be reached at lorizanteson@verizon.net.

RESOURCES:

National Institute on Aging Exercise Guide

Arthritis Foundation Life Improvement Programs

AARP Physical Activity Programs

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