This Low-Impact Workout Can Help Seniors Regain Their Strength
New research finds one type of exercise can help protect against frailty in older adults.
The practice helped participants have better mobility and leg strength.
Experts recommend that older adults make regular exercise a priority.
Staying active is important for overall health, but it can become more of a challenge as you age. With that, it’s important to find exercise routines that can support your health while also enhancing other areas of your life.
Now, a new scientific analysis from researchers at Harvard University suggests that yoga is a great option for helping seniors regain their strength and improve mobility. The study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at 33 studies of 2,384 participants over the age of 65. The researchers found that yoga—typically Hatha yoga that included Iyengar or chair-based methods—increased the walking speed and ability to rise from a chair. Both of these metrics are linked with less frailty and increased longevity.
While yoga for seniors isn’t a new concept, this is the first time the effects of the practice have been measured against a slew of different metrics doctors use to define frailty in older patients. The researchers found that yoga was the most closely linked with improved walking speed (slow walking speed is associated with a higher risk of death in older adults), along with improved leg strength to help with things like being able to rise from a chair or bed.
Worth noting: Yoga didn’t seem to have as much of an impact on balance, and it also didn’t seem to impact handgrip strength (another marker of frailty).
“Up to 50% of adults aged 80 years or older are estimated to be frail and the global prevalence is expected to rise given aging of our population. We need more interventions to help with frailty,” says lead study author Julia Loewenthal, M.D., a geriatrician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“There are limited options to improve or prevent frailty,” points out study co-author Ariela Orkaby, M.D., M.P.H., director of frailty research in the Division of Aging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “We are hoping to identify strategies that can improve the health of older adults.”
So, why might yoga be helpful for seniors, and what other low-impact exercises should older Americans consider? Here’s the deal.
Why might yoga be helpful for seniors?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that yoga is becoming more popular with older Americans, citing nationwide survey data that show nearly 7% of American adults aged 65 and up practiced yoga in 2017, compared to 3.3% in 2012.
The NCCIH stresses the importance of safety when older adults practice yoga, though, recommending that people start with classes identified as “gentle” or for seniors to get individualized advice and learn correct form. The NCCIH also suggests chair yoga for seniors who have limited mobility.
Research has found that yoga can be helpful for seniors. Not only is it a gentle, low-impact form of exercise, one small study from the NCCIH found that yoga practitioners had more gray matter in their brains compared to people who don’t practice yoga, regardless of their age. (Gray matter helps with information processing, including movement, memory, and emotions.) The researchers also found that the volume of certain brain regions increased with the number of years someone practiced yoga, and how often they practiced per week.
Doctors say they’ve also seen the benefits of yoga in older patients. “These findings are totally consistent with what we see clinically,” says Alfred Tallia, M.D., M.P.H., professor and chair in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“Much of yoga involves stretching,” he explains. “We lose flexibility in our bodies as we age, and the stretching involved in many parts of yoga can help restore and maintain flexibility which can reduce falls and other injuries.”
Yoga is also typically low-impact “which means many of the adverse consequences of high-impact aerobic activities like running are avoided while enhancing flexibility,” Dr. Tallia says.
“Most yoga focuses on lower extremity exercises—that can lead to lower extremity endurance,” says Ryan Glatt, C.P.T., director of the FitBrain Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.
Yoga also “touches on many different physiologic systems in the body, which might explain why it helps with an overall measure like mobility or walking speed,“ Dr. Loewenthal says. Yoga involves poses in a variety of positions like standing, seated, lying, and even upside down and, in a standing position, there is the potential to build muscle strength in the legs and work on balance and coordination, she points out. (Her study did not find that yoga had a significant influence on balance, but many of the participants did chair yoga.)
“The transitions between positions provide some practice for doing these actions in the real world, liking standing up from a chair,” Dr. Loewenthal says. “So while yoga practices usually don’t reach the same aerobic exercise capacity as things like cycling or swimming, there are a lot of other benefits that may help older people function more efficiently in their day to day life.”
How often should older Americans exercise?
Exercise recommendations for older Americans are similar to what public health experts suggest for younger adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults aged 65 and up need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity like brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity activity like hiking, jogging, or running. It’s also important to have at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities and to do activities that improve balance (like standing on one foot) three days a week, the CDC says.
However, the CDC makes a point to say that older adults should do their best to be as physically active as abilities and conditions allow, noting that some physical activity is better than none.
What other exercises are good for seniors?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends that older Americans focus on four types of exercises— endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Here’s what they suggest for each:
Brisk walking or jogging
Climbing stairs or hills
Playing tennis or basketball
Gripping a tennis ball
Overhead arm curls
Lifting your body weight
Using a resistance band
Standing on one foot
The heel-to-toe walk
The balance walk
Standing from a seated position
Stretching your back
Inner thigh stretches
Stretching the back of your legs
“My favorite exercise to recommend for older individuals is swimming,” Dr. Tallia says. “This combines many of the benefits of low-impact highly aerobic exercise with stretching and movement of all muscle groups and joints.”
Dr. Loewenthal says that walking is a preferred form of exercise in a lot of her older patients. “But it is not enough as we get older,” she says. “It’s really important to also work on strength, balance, and flexibility. ...It’s most important to choose something you like to do and touches on multiple elements of physical activity—endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.”
When it comes to taking on a new exercise routine as an older American, Dr. Tallia says it’s really best to check in with your doctor first, especially if you have a chronic condition. “Starting out slowly will lessen the chances of injury or an adverse response by giving the body a chance to adapt to the new movement and cardiovascular stresses,” he says. “But, the bottom line is, exercise is good, and helps to promote better functioning and longer life in the elderly.”
Orkaby recommends staying in tune with your body as you work out. “As a routine becomes easy, consider changing the time interval and intensity,” she says. “Most importantly, pick an activity that is enjoyable and you are more likely to stick with it.”
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