The topic of healthy aging is all over the news these days. We are here to set the record straight and give you a roadmap to improve your physical and mental health. Aging well is entirely achievable. Regardless of where you begin, even the smallest steps can make a huge difference. What better time to start than Healthy Aging Month?
The Benefits of Exercise on Aging
How important is activity? A study in the Journal of American Heart Association states, “Exercise is being recognized as the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have. Not only does regular movement appear to benefit our mind and body, but it also seems to protect us from many aspects of aging's slow wear and tear.”
The word exercise can strike fear in many older adults, and with good reason! If you haven’t had a consistent exercise routine it can be tough to get started. Let’s begin by replacing exercise with the word “activity.” For some people, increasing your activity level is a good place to start when focusing on healthy aging. Others may want to take your activity/exercise to another level.
There are many benefits to exercising often. Increased activity:
- Protects against heart disease
- Improves blood pressure
- Increases strength and mobility.
- Strengthens the heart
- Strengthens the lungs
- Improves balance reducing the risk of falls in seniors, the leading cause of death and disability for adults over the age of 65
- Improves mood
- Improves memory and overall cognitive functioning
The Connection Between Exercise and Memory
It seems as though everyone is worried about their memory these days. According to the Alzheimer's Association, approximately 5.8 million people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer's dementia, and this number is expected to grow to 13.8 million cases by mid-century. Alzheimer’s type of dementia accounts for the majority of dementia cases, so this number does not take into account other causes of dementia.
There is currently no cure or treatment for dementia. Lifestyle factors, and their effect on dementia, are gaining a lot of attention. There is a focus on “modifiable risk factors” like exercise and nutrition, while we wait for a viable treatment and cure.
The impact of exercise on memory is getting a lot of attention. Research shows that exercise has a very positive effect on cognition. According to a New York Times article about the subject, “A single, moderate workout may immediately change how our brains function and how well we recognize common names and similar information, according to a promising new study of exercise, memory and aging.”
This promising news lends further evidence to the positive effects of exercise on the brain as well as the body for older adults. Exercise does not cure or treat dementia, but the research is clearly showing an encouraging relationship between the two.
How Much Exercise Should Older Adults Get?
The World Health Organization has some guidelines that we summarize below. Older adults should:
- Do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity activity
- Perform aerobic activity in bouts of at least 10 minutes duration
- Increase their moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes per week or engage in 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week to receive even more health benefits
- Perform physical activities to enhance balance and prevent falls on three or more days per week if they have poor mobility
- Do muscle-strengthening activities involving major muscle groups on two or more days a week.
- Be as physically active as their abilities and conditions allow if they cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions.
Bottom line: It is never too late to start. Have patience and you will see positive results! Even a little regular activity has positive benefits to last a lifetime.
Let’s continue with eight practical tips on getting started:
- Start where you are, not where you want to be. We can’t emphasize this enough. Positive aging requires that safety be a priority. If you are new to an activity, make sure you are supervised by someone. Start low and go slow!
- Attend group classes. These could be in an exercise class at the senior center or at your gym. Many gyms have group activities to suit a variety of functional levels from yoga to chair exercises.
- Hire a personal trainer. If you can afford it, hire a personal trainer who specializes in working with older adults. This person can monitor your progress and create a plan for you to achieve your specific goals.
- Use a physical therapist. If you are recovering from an illness or accident, use a physical therapist. Physical therapy is an underutilized resource to rehabilitate safely and more quickly.
- Bring someone with you. If possible, get a friend or family member to start with you. This will keep you accountable and improve both party’s health. There are benefits of weight training for seniors and their caregivers alike.
- Use a wearable fitness tracker. If you like tracking data, consider a Fitbit or Apple Watch to track your activity level.
- Make the most of your routine. Housework, gardening and playing with the grandkids counts as activity!
- Consider hiring an in-home caregiver. Caregivers can help reinforce physical therapy exercises and give reminders to get up and move.
How to Exercise if you Can’t Get Out
One of the biggest challenges older adults face is how to stay physically active if they are confined. There are several reasons someone may find themselves unable to get out of their apartment or home.
Currently, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on older adults, especially those living in senior housing. People across the country have been quarantined, unable to leave to walk outside, or in some cases, the hallways.
But COVID-19 is not the only reason people sometimes find themselves confined. An accident or illness sometimes leads to prolonged recovery and the inability to access activities. There are ways to stay healthy and active during confinement.
- If you qualify, consider home health. Although time-limited, home health offers physical therapy to get you back on your feet.
- Home exercises can be very effective. Find videos that cater to older adults online. Check with your physician about any precautions before you begin.
- If you can afford it, hire a personal trainer to come to your home. Find one that specializes in working with older adults.
- Sitting is bad for your health, so any activity is a helpful activity. If you are not comfortable with programmed exercise, get up and walk throughout the day, even around your home.
- Consider hiring in-home caregivers to help you reinforce activity goals each day. Home caregivers have the additional benefit of providing companionship to combat the loneliness that can come from isolation.
Positive Aging with Mindfulness
The term “mindfulness” may seem like some new-age concept for people who take yoga and go on meditation retreats. The fact of the matter is the concept of mindfulness is gaining traction as a mainstream practice important for all individuals as we get older.
What exactly does mindfulness mean? Psychotherapist Andrea Brandt says, “Mindful aging is aging in a way that doesn't deny the negatives of getting older but doesn't blow them out of proportion and dwell on them either. Instead, it turns the mind to the benefits of aging, of which there are many.” It means viewing changes, good and bad, without judgment and finding peace with them.
Some people seemed blessed with the ability to be resilient and calm in the face of adversity. For many of us, it can be a struggle. The good news is that mindfulness can be learned.
The benefits of mindfulness include:
- An ability to better manage stress and conflict
- Improved quality of life
- Improved cognition and memory
- Reduced depression and anxiety
- Reduced high blood pressure
- Reduced pain
- Improved motivation
Mindfulness takes practice and with that practice, you may see dramatic results. Health problems may not seem so overwhelming and you will notice a renewed sense of confidence and control. Let’s look at the steps to becoming a more mindful person so you can reap the benefits outlined above:
- Put things into perspective. When up against a roadblock, think about the bigger picture. With a positive and “can do” attitude, most problems can be solved more easily than one might think.
- Replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. An example: “I can do this. I am strong and capable.” Positivity has actually been shown to lead to a longer life!
- Practice deep breathing when you get anxious or stressed. You can find all kinds of instructions online or on apps.
- Try yoga or Tai Chi. Both require a present and calm mind.
- Try meditation. There are many methods and benefits of meditation. Again, you can try numerous apps and online instructions to get you started.
- Look for support. Connect with other people in a mindful and meaningful way. You will be amazed at the emotional and psychological benefits.
Healthy Eating for Healthy Longevity
There may be no other topic that has as much confusion surrounding it as nutrition. Every day it seems as though there is some new piece of advice that contradicts what was proposed just a short while ago! Sifting through all the science and research, there are tried and true fundamentals that almost everyone agrees to.
The World Health Organization has some clear cut guidelines that we will summarize below:
- Eat a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit. Try choosing what’s in season or picking a vegetable you’ve never cooked with before.
Why it matters: People with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables have lower incidence of chronic health problems. This includes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some kinds of cancer.
- Eat moderate amounts of the right kinds of fats. This would include unsaturated vegetable oils like olive, soy, sunflower, or corn oil. Stay away from animal fats or oils high in saturated fats like butter, ghee, lard, coconut, and palm oil. Avoid trans fats which are found in processed and fried foods.
Why it matters: Eating too much of the wrong kinds of fat can be harmful to your health. It can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Eat less salt and sugar. Limit salt in cooking and avoid high sodium condiments. Limit intake of soft drinks and other high sugar drinks. Choose fresh fruit over high sugar cookies, candy, and other desserts. Look at the sugar content of what you buy. You will be surprised at how many foods contain high amounts of sugar. Limiting sugar can protect your brain as well as your body!
Why it matters: People whose diet is high in salt and sodium have an increased risk of high blood pressure. High sugar intake has been associated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
- Make Sure You Get Enough Protein. Protein is important as you get older. Choose lean sources of protein like chicken and fish. Beans and nuts are also good sources of protein.
Why it matters: We need protein to build muscle. Muscle weakness and decline of muscle mass are serious problems for older adults.
- Watch Your Shopping Cart. What you buy is what you eat! Focus on fresh vegetables and fruit. Buy nuts for snacking which will fill you up.
Why it matters: Choosing food and snacks with care at the store sets you up for success when you get home.
- Plan meals ahead. When you are cooking, make extra to freeze for another meal.
Why it matters: Meal prepping can save you time and energy to spend on other areas of your life. It also helps you avoid the temptation of a last-minute fast-food pick up when you’re in a rush.
How Hydration Improves our Health
Also, as we get older our thirst center tends to decline, so seniors are at an increased risk of dehydration partially because they may not notice when they are dehydrated. According to nurse Anne Vanderbilt, by the time you are thirsty, you may already be dehydrated. Dehydration is a common cause of hospitalizations of older adults. Water is necessary for every bodily function.
For someone who lives alone, it can be a challenge to remember to drink water, but we have some great suggestions!
- Start early drinking water. Drinking later at night means more trips to the bathroom!
- Avoid sugary drinks like juices and sodas.
- Limit caffeine intake, which can lead to increased urination. This defeats the purpose of trying to stay hydrated.
- Try to drink between 6-8 glasses of water a day unless instructed otherwise by your doctor.
- Begin each morning with two large glasses of water. Carry a water bottle with you everywhere you go as a reminder to drink during the day.
How Social Engagement Helps You Age Well
Social isolation and loneliness have profound impacts on health. This includes a higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. According to The National Institute on Aging, as we get older, our lives change. Grown kids sometimes move further away. Retirement means losing the social connections of coworkers and their families. Losing the ability to drive can also exacerbate the problem of loneliness and social isolation in seniors.
- Create a sense of belonging and connection
- Improve quality of life
- Improve self-esteem
- Improve cognitive function
- Bring a feeling purpose in life
- Prevent disease
- Ward off depression and anxiety
Pay attention to the changing nature of your life and the “creep” of social isolation. Awareness is the first step to ward off social isolation. Here are eight tips to get you going:
- Look for volunteer opportunities. Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose and belonging. It also connects you to others in a meaningful way. Start with your local Aging Services department.
- Stay connected on social media. Social media doesn’t give you personal face-to-face connection but it can be a great way to see what your children and grandchildren are up to!
- Improve your technology skills. This is especially important if you are confined. These technology tips for seniors can help get you started. Find a grandchild or someone else to teach you how to use a computer or a smartphone. The possibilities with these two devices alone can open up the world to you.
- Consider the local senior center. Senior centers have come a long way. They offer clubs, outings, and numerous activities for a wide range of interests.
- Join a book club. You may be surprised to learn that book clubs abound. Check with your friends who belong to see if there is an opening.
- Invite people over for dinner or lunch. Inviting people over is a lost art! Whether you live in your own home or assisted living, take the plunge!
- Call, email, and text. Staying connected does not always mean in person. Calling and emailing are good ways to let someone know you are thinking of them. If you want to keep in touch with a child or grandchild, learn to text!
- Keep your expectations reasonable. Stay flexible as you make new friends. Resist the urge to find the perfect fit. Be open to new relationships.
Celebrating Healthy Aging Month is the perfect time to focus on aging well. Small improvements in any of these areas will make a huge difference in your health and wellbeing.