Exercise and Aging: Finding the right program for you

Staying fit and active as you age can be a major challenge for some individuals. Whether it is due to an injury or medical condition or simply the normal changes that occur with aging, at some point our bodies just don’t quite function how they used to. Generally speaking, older adults often experience a slowing of movement, which can in turn lead to decreased activity followed by decline in function and ultimately, a loss of independence.

On Thursday, June 8, 2017, the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Human Resources – Quality of Work Life and AREUFIT Health Services, Inc. hosted a workshop on “Exercise and Aging” open to all Penn faculty and staff to discuss safe and effective ways that older adults can work to maintain their function.

“As we age, our muscles tend to work on the “use it or lose it” principle,” said Micah Josephson, MS, representative of AREUFIT and leader of the workshop. There are two main neuromuscular changes that are often associated with aging – dynapenia, the loss of strength and power and sarcopenia, the loss of muscle tissue. However, research shows that exercise and physical activity can help slow or reduce the risk of these changes.

The question is, what type of exercise is the right one for you? Because all of our bodies are different, it is extremely important to understand what exercises and activities will best suit your needs or restrictions and help you achieve your goal.

Josephson presented some “official recommendations” for the following types of exercise: aerobic exercise (often referred to as “cardio”), strength training, balance training, and power training. When it comes to aerobic exercises like spinning, running, swimming, and a variety of group fitness classes such as Zumba, it is best to stick to 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity per week.

Strength training, which focuses on major muscle groups such as the torso and legs, is Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 11.47.06 AMrecommended 2+ days a week. The most important factor is to focus on the number of repetitions (reps) you can reach in a certain number of sets. For example, if you are strength training and doing bicep curls (pictured here), you should try to reach 8-12 repetitions doing about 3-4 sets of this movement. The amount of weight that you should use varies person to person, but it should be enough that you are maxing out around 8-12 reps while still maintaining form and control of the movement.

According to Josephson, balance training is suggested 2-3 days per week/60 minutes per week. The National Institute on Aging (NIH) Senior Health website offers some great tips and examples of safe ways to practice balance training.

Finally, for power training, Josephson says it is best to practice high-speed, low-resistance movements, recommending 2 sets of 12-15 reps twice per week. Using bicep curls as an example again, when power training instead of focusing on reaching a specific number of reps, you would focus on the velocity, or speed, of your movements. You want to perform the movement as quickly as you can while still maintaining control of the weight and yourself.

Regardless of your age or abilities, the first step in determining the best exercise program for you is to set your goal. When setting your goal, you have to think as specifically as possible. For example, the goal of “being able to keep up with the grandkids” does not look the same for every individual. For some, this may be getting up and down on the ground to play a game, while for others it may be running around the yard or going on hikes. These goals focus on very different muscle movements and your exercise program should be tailored accordingly.

If you are serious about exercising and maintaining a safe, active lifestyle as you age, Josephson has three overarching recommendations:

  1. Make the choice to exercise regularly
  2. Find a professional trainer who can help guide you
  3. If you cannot meet regularly with the trainer, meet periodically for check-ins and re-assessments

However, if you do not have access to a personal trainer, there are many other resources that can help you on this journey. The National Institute on Aging (NIA)’s Go4Life campaign is designed to help older adults fit exercise and physical activity into their daily lives. They focus on nutrition, exercise, and safety and offer a variety of tips and examples of exercises for maintaining endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

The NIA’s main website is also a great source of information, not only for tips on exercising, but also for facts on the many benefits and ways that it can improve your quality of life.

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