Senior-Friendly Fitness Close to Home

February 25, 2011

By Michelle Porter Tiernan

Exercise is not only good for your body; it’s good for your brain. Physical activity encourages regular brain functions and helps keep the brain active. A study by the University of Washington found regular exercise reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 40 percent. For people with dementia, exercise can improve sleep, reduce boredom, and quiet restlessness.

You and your loved one have a lot to gain from exercise.

Older adults who exercise are more equipped to carry out everyday activities such as getting dressed, preparing meals, shopping, and housekeeping. The Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago found that for healthy seniors with intact memory, the risk of becoming disabled fell 7 percent for every hour spent each week being physically active.

As a caregiver, you and your loved one have a lot to gain from exercise, but how do you find the right fitness program to meet your needs? Before starting any exercise program, check with a physician to make sure the older adult does not have health limitations that would make exercise harmful.

First Stop: the Phonebook
“Typically, the first place to start is a medical center or hospital,” says Robyn Stuhr, exercise physiologist and executive vice president of the American Council on Exercise. “Contact the mental health or community health departments first; they’re likely to have a list of resources.”

Many hospitals and medical centers offer exercise and wellness programs specifically for seniors. A sampling of exercises include light weights, gentle yoga, low-impact water aerobics, walking around a track or on a treadmill, and seated workouts in chairs. Exercise physiologists are usually available to answer questions and to guide participants during exercise to avoid injury.

Another option is calling the local Y. “The YMCA and similar community organizations tend to cater to a broad range of age groups, including seniors,” says Stuhr. Older adults are among some of the most loyal members of Ys, where they take part in low-impact water workouts and exercise classes like tai chi. The Y is also a great place for older adult caregivers to meet and talk to peers through social clubs and senior centers, which enriches the exercise experience.

Regardless of the program you choose, as a caregiver you may need to participate in the exercise program with your loved one. A person with dementia may not be able to remember instructions from class to class, Stuhr points out. “They may need you to repeat and demonstrate things.”

Stuhr also recommends scheduling classes during early morning hours. “Some clinicians have found that programs earlier in the day are better tolerated, because people with Alzheimer’s have more restlessness and agitation later in the day.”

Free Fitness Ideas
If your budget is tight, inexpensive or free exercise programs are usually offered by churches and other religious institutions, community centers, and community colleges.

Take time to call ahead or visit the location first before signing up for classes. Make sure it’s the right environment for your loved one by asking how many people typically attend a class and if the room can get loud. Scientists have found that people with Alzheimer’s disease often become agitated in certain social situations, so it’s best to choose a fitness program that isn’t crowded or too noisy.

Although noisy environments are detrimental to people with Alzheimer’s disease, soft background music actually can keep people with dementia more calm. Stuhr says music that seniors may recognize from their teenage or young adult years, such as tunes from the swing era, can be soothing and motivating while exercising.

As a caregiver, you can also accompany your loved one on regular walks. Local greenways and city parks are nearly empty during weekdays, but avoid these public walking trails in the evenings or on weekends when they can become crowded. During cold weather, move your walking routine into an indoor shopping mall. Malls often sponsor free walking programs just for seniors. Mall walkers meet early, about 30 minutes before stores open, so shoppers are just beginning to arrive by the time the walk is over.

An ideal place to exercise is a fitness center that caters exclusively to seniors. One such program is SilverSneakers®, which has locations nationwide. If you belong to a participating Medicare health plan or Medicare Supplement carrier, it’s free to join.

Exercise classes are available for older adults who are fit and active as well as those who are sedentary or unfamiliar with exercise. Classes last from 45 to 60 minutes and are offered several times per week. Participants move to music while exercising with hand-held weights, a ball, or elastic tubing with handles. A chair can be used for seated or standing support.

The SilverSneakers program also features a senior-friendly, certified staff, says Stuhr. “Their instructors are trained to work with older adults on such things as balance and strength.”

Exercise Training 101
Once you’ve made the decision on where to exercise, you should know what to expect. According to Stuhr, there are four basic types of exercise training:

  • Strengthening exercise. Regardless of your age, you can still build muscle, and you don’t need a bench press or weight lifting machine to get stronger. Older adults can use stretch bands, light weights, or wrist weights to achieve a stronger body. Muscle-building exercises also help caregivers provide better care. “Strengthening exercises help older adults do for themselves and get around more easily,” says Stuhr.
  • Flexibility exercise. Exercises performed gently through a range of motion help keep joints flexible. “As the body ages, tissues start to change, and tendons and joints are not as flexible as they used to be,” says Stuhr. Tai chi is an excellent exercise to gain flexibility, especially for people who are getting older. Some simple versions of tai chi repeat movements, which is helpful for people with memory problems.
  • Basic balance. Tai chi also improves balance, which can prevent falls in older adults. Stuhr says another way to improve balance is to hold a bar, rail, or chair and try to balance on one foot or with feet front to back. A personal trainer can introduce more challenging balance exercises.
  • Cardiovascular or aerobic fitness. Exercising in a pool is a great way to get a heart-pumping workout while going easy on the joints. The natural resistance of the water turns the pool into a “liquid weight room,” says Stuhr. Warm water pools promote fluid movement and provide resistance and buoyancy, which can be helpful for older adults with osteoarthritis. Exercise bikes are another option for aerobic fitness, especially when a person is overweight or suffering from knee problems.

Inspiration to Get Moving
Water exercise may be right for you but not for your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. While maintaining a reasonable level of exercise is important to the overall health of Alzheimer’s patients, the type of exercise any patient engages in should be individualized to his or her abilities. You should talk with your doctor about whether exercise is right for both you and your loved one. Even if your loved one is a lifelong swimmer, you should not allow them in the water without supervision, and it might be recommended that they remain in shallow sections of the pool.

The consequences of not exercising cannot be denied. Just like an unused bicycle left out in the rain, your body can get rusty when you don’t take time to exercise.

Exercise can relieve stress, prevent disease, and improve mood for caregivers and their loved ones alike. Caregivers need physical fitness to accomplish everyday tasks and to continue to provide the care and attention their loved one needs. A person with dementia needs exercise to improve not only health but also quality of life.

“That person still inhabits the body,” says Stuhr. “Choose an exercise program he or she enjoys.”

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Michelle Porter Tiernan, Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Fall 2008.


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