Designing an exercise program for seniors is a balancing act. Not only should cardiorespiratory, strength and flexibility be evaluated, but posture and walking gait should be trained and improved too. Additionally, balance and functional training can help decrease their chance of falling and becoming disabled. For most older adults, the primary health goal is to maintain an independent lifestyle. Adding an exercise program should always be in addition to having a proper diet, not a replacement.
General Program Recommendations for a senior without complex health issues are:
1. Choose exercises that are familiar and enjoyable.
2. Repeat specific activities to improve coordination, skill and confidence.
3. Make sure the individual possesses the requisite skill to safely perform the activity.
4. Avoid or modify activities that are high impact and may involve trauma to joints and/or muscles.
5. Avoid or modify activities that require a high level of coordination and balance, as is appropriate to the resident’s specific situation.
6. Include adequate, gradual warm-up and cool down (at least 10-15 minutes for both). This is especially critical for residents with known cardiovascular or orthopedic concerns or arthritis.
The general recommended frequency is three to seven times per week, with 15-60 minutes of exercise per session. Cardiovascular improvements can be seen with even low intensity exercise. For the previously inactive older adult, attaining a high exercise intensity is the least crucial factor in a successful program and can lead to injury or exercise dropout.
Many researchers believe the single most important step in countering the aging process is strength training. It is inaccurate to believe that older adults lose their ability to respond to exercise. Studies have shown that strength can triple in seniors. Strength training is the only way to stop muscle from wasting away. An approximate 30 percent reduction in strength between 50 and 70 years of age is typical.1
The key to effective strength training is to select an intensity that will fatigue the targeting muscle in 8 to 20 reps. Endless repetition can lead to overuse injuries and won’t produce significant strength gains. Start with high reps and less weight. Chose 8-10 exercises to perform 2-3 times per week, gradually increasing weight and decreasing reps over 12 weeks. It is beneficial to change up the routine at least every 3 months. If you do the same thing every day, you will plateau.
Inadequate protein intake can hinder the anabolic response to strength training. The current Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) in the US is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is inadequate. Recent data suggests that the safe protein intake is 1.25 grams per kilogram.2
Benefits of Strength Training:
When muscle is gained, your resident’s body will operate at a higher metabolic rate making it easier to maintain or lose weight.
Strengthens bones, tendons and ligaments.
Stronger tendons and ligaments provide better support to joints and protect against injury.
Posture is also improved. Strong muscles help to maintain an erect posture and reduce pain in your back, hips and knees.
Bottom line: Strength train, or lose it!
1 Masseo et al. 1998