Fitness 101 for seniors

  • Living
  • Saturday, 25 Jan 2014

Staying fit in your golden years gives you more energy for activities. Once you make exercise a habit, you’ll never want to give it up.

AGEING is not necessarily a beautiful thing, especially if you’re plagued with multiple ailments. The aches and pains can be debilitating.

For most Asian seniors, the golden years are the time to sit back, catch up on their hobbies or find new ones, and travel. Many indulge in babysitting their grandkids, ferrying them from school and extra-curricular activities. These people are often busier than before they retired!

Exercise isn’t quite part of our seniors culture, although it’s slowly getting there as more enrol in qigong and yoga classes.

Everyone knows the benefits of working out, but taking that first step is a colossal task.

Many embark on a fitness programme after the first “strike”. When they find out they’re diabetic, have high cholesterol levels, are hypertensive or have blocked arteries, that’s when they swing into action.

I get asked this a lot by those above 60: “At my age, can I exercise?” or “I have arthritis, my knees hurt when I walk, so how can I exercise?”

Of course, you can! The benefits far outweigh the risks, so you just have to work within your limits.

Our former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad started riding horses at 60, and continues to do so at 88.

In fact, I’ve taught my 91-year-old music teacher some basic exercises and breathing techniques that she can do while seated. It has helped with her sinuses and joint stiffness.

Age is no barrier to doing anything. My 88-year-old jazz dance teacher, Luigi, who has suffered a series of strokes and now relies on a walking stick, carries on choreographing.

While his assistant demonstrates the jumps and spins, Luigi still manages to create beautiful works. His motto is “Never Stop Moving”.

As we age, exercise is crucial to minimise the impact of illnesses and chronic disease. It also improves mood, lowers chances of injury, ensures that bone loss is kept to a minimum, and the risk of falling and broken bones is lower.

With age, the body does take a little longer to repair itself, but moderate physical activity is good for people of all ages and ability levels.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, almost all older people can benefit from additional physical activity. While housework and gardening keeps you mobile, these are not enough to challenge your body’s capacity. You need regular exercise.

When you’re already in pain and have stiff joints, the thought of going for a walk might seem overwhelming, but the key is to gather your mental strength, and get moving. Every small bit helps.

Lack of exercise can make your joints even more painful and stiff. Keeping your muscles and surrounding tissue strong is important to maintain support for your bones. By being immobile, these supporting muscles are weakened, creating more stress on your joints.

A complete fitness routine should integrate cardiovascular endurance, strength or resistance training, and flexibility exercises. Doing them all will give you the greatest rewards, but even if you do only one type, you will still reap the benefits.

What exercises are suitable for seniors?

If you’re able-bodied, two that I strongly recommend are walking and working out in water.

Walking can be done anywhere, anytime. Your only investment is a pair of good shoes for support. Start with a 20-minute walk, and increase the timing up to 40 minutes. As your timing gets better and the walk becomes a stroll, increase the intensity by brisk walking, or carry two 500ml bottles in each hand for added resistance.

For water workouts, you don’t need to know how to swim. Walking in water can do wonders. The buoyancy of water reduces body weight by about 90%, making the workouts gentle on the joints. The continuous water resistance also forces you to engage more muscle fibres.

The buoyancy of water reduces body weight by about 90%, making the workouts gentle on the joints – MCT

It’s often hailed as a workout for retirees, but hey, water workouts can be physically challenging, depending on how much effort you put in. The pulling and pushing movements are similar to exercises in the gym.

In addition, you must incorporate two to three strength/resistance training workouts a week to strengthen your joints.

You can use water bottles, your grandchild (only newborns, please!), resistance bands, weights, walls, the floor or furniture as resistance.

Building strength and power will help you stay independent and make day-to-day activities easier, such as opening a jar, getting in and out of a car, and lifting objects.

From my experience teaching seniors, I’ve discovered that many have problems with balance, so adding some balance exercises to your daily workouts is recommended. These include single-leg balances, standing on one leg with the opposite hand raised, rising on the balls of the feet, or standing with your eyes closed.

Normally, balance control is accomplished automatically without requiring our conscious attention. When our balance is disrupted, we have to exert intense conscious effort to try to overcome the abnormal sensations and maintain control of our balance. This intense effort, in turn, is what leads to secondary symptoms such as shortened attention span and fatigue.

In a normal healthy individual, our senses of touch (feet, ankles, joints) and sight (eyes), and inner ear motion sensors, work together in harmony with the brain. A person with a balance disorder, however, may have a problem in any one of these systems, or in multiple systems.

How do you know if you are at risk for falling? According to, there are several known risk factors, both related to yourself (physical fitness/ailments, psychological and social factors) and your environment (the surfaces you walk on, obstacles, lighting, etc.), which can increase your susceptibility to falling.

Some common indications include symptoms of dizziness or unsteadiness, taking one or more medications, a recent period of bed rest or inactivity, loss of strength or feeling in the legs or feet, or a loss of confidence in your ability to get around.

Falls are not typically the result of a single cause or risk factor, but the net result of a combination of factors.

Lastly, stretch – in bed is easiest. Give yourself a good morning wake-up stretch before you climb out of bed. Gently, twist your body left and right, lift your arms overhead and contort your facial muscles (a recipe for staying youthful). Take 15 rounds of deep breathing and you’re ready to start the day.

Exercise is indeed cheap medicine for better health, but when you start young, the benefits are greater.

However, before you start on any programme, seek clearance from your medical practitioner. If you experience chest pain or pressure, shortness of breath, sharp muscle pains, nausea, dizziness or difficulty balancing, stop and consult a doctor.

The writer is a certified fitness trainer who tries to battle gravity and continues to dance, but longs for some bulk and flesh in the right places.

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Fitness 101 for seniors


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