By Dr. Mercola
Think you’re too old to exercise? The clear fan favorite of races held at the Penn Relays, which feature some of the fastest runners at the college, high school and professional levels, is the 75 and over 100-meter dash.
In the short film above, titled Going the Distance, you can watch Champ Goldy, who’s 98, practice and compete in the race along with a handful of other athletes in their golden years.
The race is labeled a men’s 100-meter dash, but the video also features 85-year-old Betty Leander, who is the first woman to compete in the 75-and-older category. It’s inspiring to say the least.
Many equate getting older, especially into your 80s and beyond, with frailty and immobility. But these athletes are bucking the stereotypes to show you can stay fit and active even at nearly 100 years old. Filmmaker Jessie Beers-Altman told Runner’s World:1
“I was anticipating the masters racers would all be former runners … To my surprise, all three people in the film picked up running in their 70s and 80s. I couldn’t believe they were picking up a new skill—one that you wouldn’t think people that age would have the gumption to do.”
Why Exercise Is So Important as You Age: Preventing Falls
Exercise is important at all stages of life but perhaps most of all when you’re elderly. If you’ve led an active lifestyle, you will reap the rewards as you age, but you can benefit even if you get a late start.
One of the key benefits is it makes you steadier on your feet, reducing your risk of falls. Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries among older adults, and it’s estimated that one out of three adults aged 65 or older will fall each year.2
Physical activity is known to reduce your chances of falling significantly and, if you do fall, people who are physically fit are less likely to become injured.
Older adults who took part in an exercise program were 37 percent less likely to be injured during a fall compared to non-exercisers, according to a study published in the BMJ.3
This included a 61 percent lower risk of having a fall-induced broken bone and a 43 percent lower risk of sustaining a fall-related injury serious enough to require admission to a hospital. It doesn’t take long to achieve results, either.
For instance, eight weeks of balance training reduced slips and improved the likelihood of recovery from slips among the elderly.4
Other research noted that "altered balance is the greatest collaborator towards falls in the elderly" and found balance training is effective in improving functional and static balance, mobility and falling frequency in elderly women with osteoporosis.5
If you’re shaky when you try to balance on one leg, this is an indicator that you’re at increased risk of an injury-causing fall,6 so you should start appropriate balance and functional training exercises right away.
Stave Off Age-Related Muscle Loss
After fall prevention, the next key benefit of exercise when you’re older is that it helps preserve your muscle mass. Muscle aging may start at a relatively young age.
By the time you enter your 30s, age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) may already have begun, particularly if you’ve neglected to take proactive steps to prevent it.
Without intervention, you can lose an average of nearly 7 pounds (three kilos) of muscle per decade.7 If you stop working your muscles (or neglect to start), the consequences of sarcopenia are steep and include:8
- Increased risk of falls and fractures
- Impaired ability to regulate body temperature
- Slower metabolism
- Loss in the ability to perform everyday tasks
Much of this is preventable, however, by challenging your muscles with an appropriate workout program. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM):9
“Given an adequate training stimulus, older adults can make significant gains in strength. A two- to threefold increase in strength can be accomplished in three to four months in fibers recruited during training in older adults.
With more prolonged resistance training, even a modest increase in muscle size is possible.
… With increasing muscle strength come increased levels of spontaneous activity in both healthy, independent older adults and very old and frail men and women. Strength training, in addition to its possible effects on insulin action, bone density, energy metabolism, and functional status, is also an important way to increase levels of physical activity in the older adult.”
Exercise Helps You Avoid Premature Death
Thirty minutes of moderate physical activity a day, five days a week, can reduce your risk of death from any cause by 19 percent.10 Those who engaged in moderate intensity activity even more — a full seven days a week — further reduced their risk of death, from 19 to 24 percent.
A separate study also found that, compared to those who exercised daily and often vigorously, sedentary people had a six times greater risk of dying from heart disease over the course of 15 years.11
The fact is, if you want to extend your life (and extend it with quality years), you’ve got to exercise. It’s so effective because it acts on virtually every area of your body. As Samantha Heller, an exercise physiologist at New York University Medical Center, told CBS News:12
“The adaptations the body makes to regular exercise are nothing short of "astounding," she said. Aerobic exercise ignites the body's immune system, improves mental function, boosts energy, strengthens muscles and bones, and reduces the risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, she said.
"If we do not move, we will not be able to move," Heller said. "'Gee, I am so sorry I exercised today' is something no one has ever said."”
How Your Body Changes on Exercise
Exercise indeed affects your entire body—from head to toe—in beneficial ways, regardless of your age. This includes changes in your:13
• Muscles, which use glucose and ATP for contraction and movement. Tiny tears in your muscles make them grow bigger and stronger as they heal.
Gaining more muscle through resistance exercises has many benefits, from losing excess fat to maintaining healthy bone mass and preventing age-related muscle loss as you age. The intensity of your resistance training can achieve a number of beneficial changes on the molecular, enzymatic, hormonal, and chemical level in your body.
• Lungs. As your muscles call for more oxygen, your breathing rate increases. The higher your VO2 max—your maximum capacity of oxygen use—the fitter you are.
• Heart. Your heart rate increases with physical activity to supply more oxygenated blood to your muscles. The fitter you are, the more efficiently your heart can do this, allowing you to work out longer and harder. Your blood pressure will also decrease as a result of new blood vessels forming.
• Brain. The increased blood flow also benefits your brain, allowing it to almost immediately function better. Exercising regularly also promotes the growth of new brain cells, boosting your capacity for memory and learning.
A number of neurotransmitters are also triggered, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Some of these are well known for their role in mood control. Exercise, in fact, is one of the most effective prevention and treatment strategies for depression.
• Joints and Bones. Exercise can place as much as five or six times more than your body weight on them. Weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis, as your bones are very porous and soft, and as you get older your bones can easily become less dense and hence, more brittle -- especially if you are inactive.
Sample Strength-Training Exercises for Seniors
The following exercises are suitable for many seniors who are just starting out with strength training. If you’re more advanced, see my previous strength training for older adults article. There are exercises for seniors with limited mobility too, but the exercises below will represent a good starting point for those at a beginner’s level of fitness.
Knee Extensions With or Without Weights
Knee extension exercises will help strengthen your knees, which will improve your balance and reduce your risk of falling. Strengthening your knees will also allow you to walk and climb stairs with greater ease and comfort.
- Sit on a chair with your back straight and knees bent
- Slowly extend your right leg out in front of you and hold for a few seconds before lowering it back to starting position
- Repeat with your left leg
- Do 10 repetitions on each leg
For a more advanced version, strap an ankle weight around each ankle. Aim for a weight that is heavy enough to where you cannot do more than 15 repetitions per leg. As you get stronger, you can add more weight to keep it challenging.
Partial Squat, and Half-Squat Against a Wall
Squatting exercises increase hip flexibility and strengthen your hip flexors and quadriceps, which will improve both your walking ability and your ability to stand up from a seated position.
It also improves your overall balance and stability, reducing your risk of falling. For the beginner's version, stand up using a chair for support, and perform a standing partial squat as demonstrated in the ElderGym video above. Remember to push your buttocks out as you bend to maintain a straight back posture, and do not bend your knees past your toes.
Once you're comfortable with that, try doing a half squat against a wall. This can be a more challenging move — especially if you get all the way into a seated position — so you may want to make sure you have someone there to assist you.
- Stand with your back leaning lightly against a wall, with your legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart
- Bend your knees, sliding your buttocks down the wall. Keep your knee cap in line with the middle toe of your foot, and do not bend your knee past your toes
- If your strength allows, place your feet a bit further out from the wall and lower yourself down into a seated position, as if you're sitting on an invisible chair. Hold this position for a few seconds before raising yourself back up
- Repeat 10 to 20 times
Once you can do 20 repetitions, you can increase the difficulty even further by holding a dumbbell in each hand.
For the bicep curl, make sure you're using a weight that is appropriate for your current level of strength. If you're just starting out, a 5-pound dumbbell in each hand may be appropriate. You want the weight to be heavy enough that by the time you complete 10 to 12 reps, you feel like you can't keep going.
- Sit with good posture in a chair (remember to engage your core by imagining your sternum moving back towards your spine, to stabilize your posture); one dumbbell in each hand, palms facing forward, shoulders relaxed, and elbows close to your body
- Focusing on your bicep muscle, bend your arm at the elbows and lift the weights about three-fourths of the way toward your shoulders. Avoid rotating your shoulders forward, and keep your elbows fixed at your side
- Breathe out as you lift the weight, and breathe in as you lower them
- Do 10 to 12 repetitions
Two Tricep Exercises
While the bicep curl above strengthens the muscle on the front of your arm, tricep exercises focus on the backside of your upper arm — an area that tends to get flabby with age and lack of use. If either of these exercises hurt your elbows, then don't do them. As the triceps tend to be weaker than the biceps, you may want to use a lighter weight to start; maybe as light as two pounds instead of five. For the first tricep exercise:
- Sit with good posture in a chair, holding a dumbbell in your right hand
- Raise the dumbbell above your head, and stabilize your right arm by placing your left hand on your right elbow
- Slowly bend your right elbow, lowering the dumbbell down behind your head
- From that starting position, raise the weight toward the ceiling, and then gently lower it back down behind your head
- Repeat 10 times, then switch arms
Rotate your shoulders a few times to loosen any tension, then move on to the tricep kickback exercise:
- Lean forward in your chair. Keep your back straight, and brace yourself by placing your right arm across your lap, as demonstrated in the video. Hold the dumbbell in your left hand; arm outstretched toward the floor. Then pull your elbow up until the weight is at waist height
- From that starting position, press the dumbbell backward by straightening your arm, then return to starting position
- Do 12 reps, and repeat on the other side
Two Shoulder Exercises
By strengthening your shoulders, you will improve your ability to perform most other arm movements, whether it's to pass a bowl of food across the table, or lift a suitcase. It can also help relieve shoulder pain. Following are two examples of exercises that target your shoulders. To perform an overhead dumbbell press:
- Sit with good posture; one dumbbell in each hand, with your elbows bent so the dumbbells are up by your shoulders, palms facing forward
- From this starting position, press the dumbbells toward the ceiling and then lower back down to shoulder height. Breathe out as you raise the weights, and in as you lower them
- Repeat 10 to 12 times
For the diagonal outward shoulder raise:
- Sit with good posture, with a dumbbell in your right hand. Cross your right arm in front of you, so that the dumbbell is positioned by your left hip, palm facing inward toward your body
- From this starting position, keeping your arm straight, lift your arm up and across your body in a diagonal swing. At the end of the movement, your palm will be facing outward. Return your arm to starting position
- Repeat 10 times, then switch sides
Upright Front Row
Upright rows will increase strength in both your back and upper arms, and help improve mobility in your shoulders and elbow joints, allowing you to lift heavier objects.
- Stand with good posture, feet shoulder-width apart, buttocks out and knees slightly bent (so-called "happy dog" posture, as described in my interview with posture expert Kathleen Porter). Hold one dumbbell in each hand in front of your hips, palms facing inward toward your body
- Lift the weights upward, toward your chin. Remember to engage your core, and avoid arching your back or pulling your shoulders up toward your ears. Then return to starting position
- Repeat 10 times
Sit-backs will strengthen your core muscles, which will allow you greater mobility for everyday tasks such as getting out of bed or rising from chair. This exercise will be done on the floor. You may want to use a yoga mat if you don't have a rug.
- Begin sitting on the floor with knees bent and your arms crossed in front of your chest, as if you're giving yourself a hug
- Slowly sit back as far as is comfortable (this doesn't have to be a very big movement). The key is to remember to engage your core, and avoid rounding your back. It can be helpful to have someone sitting by your feet, to prevent your feet from lifting off the floor. Return to the starting position
- Repeat 10 times
It’s Not Too Late to Start an Exercise Program
After 12 weeks of weight training, seniors aged 65 and over improved both their leg strength and endurance, and were able to walk nearly 40 percent farther without resting.14 After 16 weeks of “total body” weight training, women aged 60 to 77 years “substantially increased strength” and had improvements in walking velocity and the ability to carry out daily tasks, such as rising from a chair or carrying a box of groceries.15
When you exercise as an older adult, you’re gaining the ability to live independently and fully, something that can be taken from you if your body becomes too frail. If you’re just starting out, consult with a personal fitness trainer who can instruct you about proper form and technique. He or she can also help you develop a plan based on your unique fitness goals and one that is safe for any medical conditions you may have.
Just keep in mind that while you need to use caution, you do need to exercise at a level that is challenging to your body. Many make the mistake of exercising with not enough intensity, and this will result in many of your benefits being forfeited. You can find even more inspiration in the video below, where Willie Murphy, a then 77-year-old power lifter and grandmother, shares what exercise, and in this case strength training, can do for you as you get older.