April 01, 2015
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Exercise for Seniors: Benefits, Risks, and How To Begin
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Exercise for Seniors: Benefits, Risks, and How To Begin

Dr. Hirsch is Professor of Clinical Internal Medicine and Public Health Sciences, Division of General Medicine, UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento, CA.

"Exercise: the Universal Antidote for Aging" appeared as the title of an 2009 article in the Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50.(1) If we didn’t know better, we might dismiss the title as reminiscent of tabloid hype for phony, over-simplified "cure-alls." It sounds too good to be true.

There’s just one problem with dismissing it as quackery: there are volumes of solid evidence that shows that exercise reduces the risk for a litany of serious diseases and conditions. It lowers our risk of breast, colon, and possibly prostate cancer. It improves our physical function and slows decline in general and in specific diseases like knee osteoarthritis. It prevents and treats type 2 diabetes mellitus,reduces fall risk, and lowers the risk of Alzheimer disease.(2) And it reduces our risk of death from heart disease — and from any cause.

Seventy percent of U.S. adults over the age of 65 are either sedentary or not active enough to reap the health benefits from their exercise.

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans(3) recommend that older adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous, aerobic physical activity or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, together with muscle-strengthening exercises two or more days per week. However, 70% of U.S. adults over the age of 65 are either sedentary or not active enough to reap the health benefits from their exercise.(4)

National surveys in the last 20 years have shown major declines in how much exercise seniors are getting. What’s more, the same studies show that people over 60 are having more problems executing simple, everyday activities.

Physical inactivity among older people is both a public health concern and an important medical condition that can affect an individual’s basic functioning, quality of life and risk for chronic disease, both physical and mental. While it is, of course, a good idea to add exercise to your life, there are a number of issues involved in the safety of starting such a routine.

This article looks at the many and well-studied effects of exercise on seniors’ health as well as discusses some of the challenges of beginning an exercise routine. Done safely, and under the guidance of a doctor or trainer, it’s virtually never too late to begin adding exercise to your life — and life to your years.

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