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Posted: February 29, 2008

Exercise and the Elderly

Why You and Mom Should Work Out Together

What if your mom was your workout buddy? Can you picture that? Mom and daughter supporting and encouraging each other into good health, physically and mentally? It’s an inspiring - and productive - picture that’s catching on with more and more caregivers.

With time so short, when can we exercise - no matter that we know it’s the right thing to do? Well, our aging parents are no different - and often they have the same excuses as we do for not more aggressively taking steps to exercise for our health. So the buddy system might inspire us both.

The evidence of exercise’s benefit is all around us. One study found that nursing home residents who took tai chi classes were less likely to suffer falls than residents who did not participate in the classes. Other studies have shown that weight-bearing exercises help prevent osteoporosis. Regular exercise helps prevent heart disease, lowers blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol. It improves circulation, which is important for folks with conditions such as diabetes. It improves joint mobility, which is particularly important for those with arthritis. And, of course, it also helps maintain a healthy body weight.

In addition to all of the physical benefits of exercise, there are psychological benefits as well. Exercise causes the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are chemicals that make us feel good. Exercise relieves stress and even helps reduce depression. In fact, many counselors and psychiatrists recommend it as part of a complete treatment plan for depression and anxiety.

Stimulating Older Minds and Flesh

Exercise also can provide mental stimulation and increased awareness for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. When Frank Eisele of Montgomery, Ohio, joined an adult day care center that provided an exercise program, his adult children noticed that he seemed more alert at home. “He was definitely more aware of what was going on around him,” says his daughter Sandra.

Exercise can improve self-esteem, help the elderly feel more confident, and also drive them to become more independent. "Exercise may well be the modality for not only adding years to life, but [it] also can add life to years," says Mary Josephine Hessert of the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine.

So maybe it is important for mom to exercise, but why should you work out with her? Well, you’ll reap the same benefits. Caregiving is stressful, and you can use the relief exercise can provide. In addition, the shared activity can work wonders for your relationship with mom.

What Kind of Workout Works?

Working out together can be more fun than working out alone. In fact, you and mom may want to consider enrolling in an exercise class together. The YMCA is a good place to look for a low-cost, quality class. If mom’s going to be working out without you, or if she needs a slower-paced class, a local senior center is a good place to start. They often offer classes that include “chair exercises,” exercises done while sitting down, for those unable to stand for long periods of time for whatever reason.

If you prefer to exercise in the privacy of your own home, you can purchase an exercise video or DVD. There are many to choose from, and a number of them are designed with seniors in mind. Look for gentle workouts that are easier on the body. These often involve stretching and strengthening the body rather than aerobic workouts. Pilates, tai chi, or yoga may be good choices for exercising together. (No, you don’t have to be able to make yourself into a pretzel to do yoga!) You can modify the workouts to fit mom’s capabilities.

You can also choose to keep it simple and go for daily walks. Walking is great exercise. It gets the circulation going, and because it is a weight-bearing exercise, it helps fight osteoporosis. If you walk outdoors, you get fresh air and sunshine. Sunlight helps fight depression, especially during winter months. When weather does not permit walking outdoors, many people walk at the local shopping mall. There’s plenty of mental stimulation there to go along with exercise with your new workout buddy.

Choose from among a variety of exercises. Try a walk one day, exercise to a video the next, attend a class the day after that, and so on. Variety will keep both you and mom interested. The exception is if mom suffers from dementia. In that case, she will probably do better with a routine that stays the same day after day.

Exercising Safely

Before starting an exercise program, it’s a good idea to talk to mom’s doctor, especially if she has health problems or physical limitations. You may want to consult a physical therapist to customize a program just for her.

You’ve probably heard the saying “no pain, no gain.” Ignore the “no gain” part and aim for no pain. If an exercise hurts, don’t do it. Start slowly and build up endurance over time. Whether exercising as prescribed by a physical therapist, taught in a class, or demonstrated on a video, exercising correctly is more important than doing it quickly or doing a lot of any one routine.

To minimize the risk of falls, you and mom both should wear shoes with non-skid soles, such as sneakers, while working out. If mom has problems with balance, place a sturdy chair within easy reach so she can grab onto the back of it if she feels wobbly.

Drink plenty of water before, during, and after a workout session to prevent dehydration. Being well-hydrated will give you more energy, as well.

OK, Now How Do I Convince Mom?

Talk to your mom about the benefits of exercise and encourage her to talk to her doctor about it. But you may have to practice what you preach. If you’re not going to work out yourself, you may have some trouble getting mom moving. That’s why working out together is such a good idea.

Just tell mom you want to take a tai chi class and you’d really like her to come with you. Tell her you want her to be your workout buddy. She’d probably love to spend the time with you. Or drop by and ask her to go for a walk with you. It probably won’t be a hard sell.

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Kelly Morris is a former social worker and home health and hospice worker whose writing has appeared in a number of health-related journals. She lives in Mansfield, Ohio, and can be reached at multihearts@hotmail.com

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