Embracing fitness: An exercise guide for seniors to thrive

You are never too old to start exercising. Here’s a comprehensive guide on what fitness training for seniors entails

“I just can’t seem to make my parents understand the importance of workouts. They don’t relate to my lifestyle at all,” complained my friend Sunny over an evening conversation. I empathised with him because it took me some cajoling to get my parents to start working out and take their health seriously as well. In a world that often glorifies youthfulness and vigour, it’s easy for seniors to feel left out of the fitness conversation. However, the truth is, fitness is not just for the young; it’s for everyone, including the ageing population. 

Also read: Why calisthenics is becoming a favourite community activity in India

The importance of fitness for seniors
A common misconception among seniors is that it’s too late to start exercising, especially if they have never been physically active. As we age, prioritising fitness becomes even more crucial, not only for physical well-being but also for mental and emotional health. Ageing often brings about changes in the body, including loss of muscle mass, reduced bone density, decreased flexibility, and impaired balance. Age-related problems like arthritis, osteoporosis, and symptoms of menopause can be best managed with good nutrition and an active lifestyle. 

Let’s delve into key aspects of fitness training for seniors: 

1. Balance and Stability
Maintaining balance is crucial for preventing falls, which can have serious consequences for seniors. In India, every year, nearly 1.5–2 million older people suffer injuries due to falls, and 1 million succumb to death due to falls, according to the National Institutes Of Health (NIH.gov). Dr Debdutta Mukherjee (PT), MPT (ORTHO), SN, says, “I train my senior clients to practice holding a staggered stance with one leg forward and one leg at the back and then slowly progress to standing on one leg with wall support, and then without support.” Dr. Nidhi Dalwadi, Head – Geriatric Physiotherapy at Fitnat follows a creative approach. “I make my patients draw alphabets on the floor with one leg and then follow with the other. It keeps things interesting for them while building balance,” she adds.

2. Mobility and Flexibility
As we age, joints may become stiff, making it harder to perform daily tasks. Regular stretching exercises help improve flexibility and range of motion, making activities like reaching, bending and lifting easier and more comfortable. Babita Singh started her fitness journey at the age of 62. “My coach makes me incorporate movements like crawling on the bed on all fours, glute bridges, and general stretches. It has been three months, and I can already notice visible changes in my mobility and joint health. I feel lighter and happier!” she says. Simple and easy stretches are a great way to get started for seniors, especially when they have never trained for fitness.

3. Strength Training
Strength training is essential for calcium absorption of the bone, increased blood flow, and maintaining muscle mass. Simple bodyweight exercises, resistance band workouts, or light weightlifting can help seniors improve their strength and functional abilities. Jackson Arokearaj, a health coach, has senior clients from the ages 50 – 86 and he focuses on getting them to do simple movements . “I make my clients train in wall push-ups for the upper body and assisted chair squats for the lower body. These movements help develop strength without causing fear and are easily scalable. I also include diaphragmatic breathing to help increase core strength and build a better gait.”

4. Cardiovascular Exercise and Sport
Cardiovascular exercise, such as walking, swimming, or cycling, helps improve heart health, endurance, and overall stamina. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, spread out over several days. Picking up a sport can be helpful and build a sense of community too, alongside the health benefits. Sisters In Sweat, a women’s community brought together by sport, is seeing senior women pick up football, basketball, and swimming from scratch. “Sport lies at the top of the fitness pyramid as it is very demanding on the body. Typically, when one picks up a sport at an older age, they need to make sure they manage the intensity of their game. It is also recommended that they first train under the more controlled environment of a gym before they step on the field/court,” says Swetha Subbiah, Fitness coach & Co-founder, Sisters In Sweat.

5. Nutrition 
A balanced diet plays a crucial role in supporting a healthy lifestyle for seniors. A nutrient profile blood report is essential to identify the deficiencies and requisite supplements. However, it is important to remember that supplementing and eating right without exercise is redundant as absorption of nutrients is dependent on the amount of physical activity. Adequate protein intake is essential for maintaining muscle mass and promoting recovery after exercise. Dr Ashok Shakar, 72, says, “I started my calisthenics training three months ago. I supplement my workout with a plant-based protein shake. I have noticed increased agility and weight loss which makes me quite happy. I feel fit!”

Anupama Shivacharya is an independent journalist and calisthenics coach based in Bengaluru.

Also read: How perceived sexism impacts older women’s well-being

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