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Safety tips for exercising seniors

By Somers Orthpaedic Surgery

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Carmel, NY - There's no longer any doubt: Exercise and physical activity can help us live longer, healthier lives. Study after study confirms that physical fitness reduces the risk and severity of many of the conditions that affect health and vitality as we age: heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, even anxiety and depression. Staying physically active can also keep our brains sharp, delaying the onset of memory loss and some forms of dementia. Millions of seniors have gotten the message and taken up structured and casual programs that improve fitness levels and deliver impressive benefits that range from reduced aches and pains to improved stamina, balance and strength.

"We recommend some level of physical activity to almost everyone, of any age, even those who already have conditions such as arthritis, heart disease and diabetes," says Dr. Stuart Styles, orthopaedic specialist with Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group. "Appropriate levels of exercise may even improve some of these conditions. But we also follow the guidelines of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and recommend that anyone over 50, especially those who have been previously inactive, check with his or her doctor before starting an exercise program and we provide tips to maximize safety and minimize the risk of injury as our patients increase their activity levels."

The National Institute on Aging of the NIH recommends four types of exercise for seniors:

Aerobic conditioning - activities like walking, swimming and riding a bike that build endurance and improve the health of the heart, lungs and circulatory system;
Strength training that builds muscle mass and reduces age-related muscle loss;
Stretching exercises to keep the body limber and improve flexibility;
Balance exercises to improve agility and reduce the risk of falling.

"No special equipment, clothes or gym membership are necessary to improve physical fitness," says Dr. Styles. "For most people, the best way to develop a balanced program they'll stay with is to incorporate increased activity into their daily routines and find things they like to do that encompass all four types of exercise: walking the dog, dancing, gardening, bicycling, water aerobics, taking the stairs instead of the elevator." Soup cans are as good as dumbbells for building muscle in the arms, back and chest. Balance can be improved simply by standing on one foot.

"Exercise safety for seniors starts with the initial conversation with your doctor," Dr. Styles continues. "Be sure to mention any new symptom the doctor might not be aware of and discuss any restrictions based on symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, joint pain, bleeding or any recent surgeries or procedures."

Dr. Styles' "top ten tips" for senior exercise are:

Start slowly, gradually increasing both the duration and intensity of your activities. A general guideline for aerobic conditioning is to build up to 30 minutes a day, most days. Strength training is best done no more than 2-3 days a week, giving muscles a chance to recover between workouts.
Don't over-exert yourself. Exercise should not be painful - although you might experience minor soreness, especially when starting - or cause excessive fatigue. You should be able to comfortably carry on a conversation while walking briskly, for example.
Use proper equipment. Have walking shoes fitted by a professional. Wear a helmet for activities like bicycling. Wear loose, comfortable clothing that allows for easy movement.
Don't exercise when you're not feeling well but don't let a minor illness derail your program. Get back to it as soon as feasible but don't pick up where you left off - resume at a lower level of intensity.
Stop exercising immediately if you experience chest pain or discomfort, dizziness, palpitations, or excessive shortness of breath.
Always include a warm-up and cool-down period in your workout. Stretch only when your muscles are warm.
Drink plenty of fluids before and after exercising, unless your doctor has said to limit fluids.
Don't hold your breath when lifting weights. Breathe out when you lift, breathe in when you lower the weight.
Protect your back by bending forward from the hips, not the waist. Your back should be straight, not rounded, which keeps it in neutral alignment and prevents injury.
Exercise with a friend.

"Exercising regularly is one of the most important things you can do to maintain health and agility as you age," Dr. Styles concludes. "Our patients not only feel better when they adopt an exercise regimen, they may actually be adding years to their lives."

Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Group, founded in 1988, is one of the most comprehensive and specialized practices in the region. www.somersortho.com

Stuart T. Styles, M.D., F.A.A.O.S., a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon, has been with Somers Orthpaedic Surgery since 1998.

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