Exercise is good for elderly people. Picture: Pexels/Anna Shvets
Exercise is good for elderly people. Picture: Pexels/Anna Shvets

Fitness is key in protecting seniors against illness

By Lifestyle Reporter Time of article published Feb 25, 2021

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As people in the developed world live longer, it is a matter of personal importance and public benefit for seniors to be physically active.

Often the belief is that one’s ability to take part in exercise and fitness activities declines as one gets older. However, increasingly, there are more seniors who are proving this wrong and what medical and sports research is showing is that one can be strong and fit at any age.

Biokineticist Joanna Coetzee, who runs the biokinetics centre at San Sereno, a senior living community owned and operated by Auria Senior Living in the Johannesburg suburb of Bryanston, works daily with seniors at all levels of fitness and can attest to the many benefits of being fit as an older adult.

“The benefits are not only physical, but cognitive and social as well – the three aspects are closely interlinked,” says Coetzee. “The first and most important thing is to get active and stay active. Within San Sereno there is a wide range of activities on offer for residents, from gym, stretching and Pilates to aqua aerobics, tai chi, ballroom and line dancing. Bowls, bridge and chess provide competitive activities with a social component to them. In the broader Bryanston neighbourhood, there are also activities like golf, tennis, squash and swimming.”

Coetzee adds: “The social and competitive aspects of these activities are tremendously important. When people retire they often get lonely and miss the social aspects of work. Being part of a team or a club, or competing in an activity gives them a focus for their time as well as social engagement. Knowing that people expect to see you or that your team needs you helps to boost self-esteem, too.”

Exercise by itself releases neurotransmitters such as endorphins, which relieve pain and stress; as well as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin – all of which play a role in regulating mood and combating depression and anxiety.

The physical benefits of exercise are tremendous. For seniors in particular, improved heart and lung function are important, as is better agility and balance. “Exercise also increases one’s chances of sleeping better – something which many older adults tend to struggle with. People also tend to drink more water and eat better in terms of their overall nutrition, which in turn plays a big role in immunity,” says Coetzee.

San Sereno, which is Auria’s flagship community, recently relaunched its dedicated dementia care facility. Dementia is more likely to occur among people over 60, and according to the USA-based Alzheimer’s Association, one in 10 Americans over the age of 65 is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research suggests that physical activity – and aerobic activity in particular – may help decrease the risk of dementia. Exercise has also been shown to have benefits for people already living with the condition.

“In light of the rising prevalence of dementia worldwide and its impact on the quality of people’s lives, we aim to provide support and care for the condition and help our residents do everything possible to combat its effects. This is one of the many reasons we encourage residents to take part in physical activities and to remain active,” says Barry Kaganson, chief executive of Auria Senior Living.

“It is widely accepted in medicine that people who are fitter and healthier – at any age – have a better chance of fighting disease. For seniors, this means avoiding (or recovering better from) viruses and infections, and also translates into a decreased chance of strokes, and an improved ability to live with conditions like Parkinson’s disease.”

Not everyone is going to run the Comrades Marathon or become a yoga master at 70, but more and more people are proving that being older is no barrier to achieving excellent fitness and having fun at the same time.

The World Health Organization has some useful guidelines for seniors for staying active. Some of its recommendations are:

Older adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or do at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.

Aerobic activity should be performed in bouts of at least a 10-minute duration.

For additional health benefits, older adults should 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, or an equivalent combination of moderate-and vigorous-intensity activity.

Older adults with poor mobility should perform physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls on three or more days per week.

Muscle-strengthening activities, involving major muscle groups, should be done on two or more days a week.

When older adults cannot do the recommended amounts of physical activity due to health conditions, they should be as physically active as possible.

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