We know that exercise is key for keeping your mind and body healthy as you age, but a new study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings has found that simply gauging how much seniors exercise can predict their risk of developing heart disease or dying early. Patients who rated their exercise levels as being lower were twice as likely to die from coronary artery disease as those who reported having more physical activity.
With around 610,000 Americans dying from heart disease each year, taking care of your heart is of utmost importance. During an atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) screening, also asking patients about their exercise can help in a direct way with treatment.
“Our study showed that simply asking patients to rate their level of physical activity, while using a test to look at the plaque in their coronary arteries, markedly improved our ability to predict patients’ risk for dying over their next decade of life,” said study author Dr. Alan Rozanski of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
The study looked at over 2,300 patients between the ages of 65 and 84. Patients were scanned for blockages in coronary arteries and also asked about their amount of exercise.
Over 10 years, the highest death rate (2.9 percent) was among those who exercised the least. Those who reported that they exercised frequently had an annual death rate of 1.7 percent. Patients with atherosclerosis who exercised regularly had a lower death risk than those who did not.
“Our results indicate that a simple assessment of self-reported daily-life physical activity can substantially improve the effectiveness of coronary artery calcium (CAC) scanning for risk stratifying older adults and is strongly encouraged,” Rozanski said. “This is consistent with recent suggestions to make assessment of physical activity a ‘fifth vital sign.’”
According to the Mayo Clinic, the main ways to prevent atherosclerosis are exercise, diet, quitting smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight.
Core exercises for seniors
It’s important for seniors to perform exercise in four different categories: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Exercises that strengthen the core muscles, use both mind and body, and develop better balance are especially beneficial. Here are the top exercises to improve total body wellness and balance.
Great senior core exercises to maintain balance
- Practice balancing on one leg at a time. Keep a chair or something to hold onto nearby. Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Have your arms out like a T, or hold onto something steady if you need to. Gradually shift your weight to one foot, and lift the other off the ground. Hold for around 10 seconds, then shift to the other foot.
- Tighten your core. The “core” refers to your abdominal muscles (including spine, hip, and pelvis muscles), which are crucial for maintaining balance. Most every other muscle movement in your body starts in the core. Throughout your day, remember your core. Gently pull your stomach muscles up and in, and hold in for as long as you can. Even small intervals like this can improve abdominal stability over time.
- Walk heel to toe. When you practice walking, remember to move through your whole foot. As we age, we tend to shuffle and take smaller steps, which can lead to trips and falls. Practice walking deliberately. This practice will strengthen your legs and increase balance. Start slowly, articulating through the foot from heel to toe.
- Do the twist. Gently twisting your torso is great for core strength and flexibility. Sit in a chair with your arms out like a T, and twist your upper body to the right, then return to center. Do this 10 times, then repeat on the left. Only go as far as you can while keeping your abs pulled in and your back straight. Exhale as you twist, and inhale as you return to center.
- Lumbar twist. This twist is a great stretch, and can also strengthen the oblique (side) muscles of your core. Lie on your back with your knees bent. Keeping the knees together, gently let both knees fall to the right side. Slowly move them back to center, then do the same on the left. Don’t move too quickly between positions, and remember to keep your abs flexed the whole time. Breathe through the movements.
- Bridge. This simple exercise can strengthen the glutes and backs of the legs as well as the lower back and core. Lie on your back with your legs together, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground. Gently tuck your pelvis and roll your spine up until your glutes are lifted. Gently roll back down. Only go as far as you can, and do not arch your back. For extra strengthening, hold the position for a few seconds before coming back down. As always, keep the core tightened to prevent injury and promote strength.
- Wall push ups. Don’t feel up to doing push ups? Well, you can still do them, just on the wall! Make sure to wear shoes with rubber soles for traction. Stand about an arm’s length away from a blank wall. Place your palms on the wall at shoulder height. Gently bend your arms and straighten again. Repeat 20 times.
- Try tai chi. This ancient Chinese martial art is a great way to experience fitness through group classes. Tai chi involves slow, low-impact movements that increase coordination, confidence, and muscle strength. You can find tai chi classes at local churches, community centers, or even free online.
- Balance ball. You can purchase a large, air-filled exercise ball to sit on. Even the act of sitting on a balance ball requires core strength and promotes good posture. There are also many exercises you can do on the ball, both low- and high-impact. Your first time with the ball, leave room all around you so that you don’t fall onto something. Wear shoes with traction when you use the ball. Start slow, by sitting on the ball and lifting light weights. When doing paperwork at home, try sitting on the ball instead of a chair to engage more muscles and promote a straight back.
- Pilates. Joseph Pilates created this exercise during World War I to help wounded soldiers heal and regain strength. Pilates practice invigorates the body and the mind. These exercises can be done in a low-impact manner that strengthens every muscle of the body. Doing Pilates regularly can relieve back pain, increase flexibility, and improve mobility. Find classes at your local gyms, Pilates centers, or online.
Visit your doctor regularly for checkups and make sure that you are well enough to embark on an exercise routine.
If at any time you feel off balance, hold onto something steady while doing these exercises. If you are very unsteady, have someone help you, or enlist a physical therapist or personal trainer.
With all of these exercises, keep your core pulled in and activated throughout the exercise in order to get the most out of the movements. Also, keeping your abs tight will help prevent injury.
Before exercising, remember to warm up by walking or running in place and doing a few stretches. To make any exercise higher impact, use light hand weights or do arm movements as you move through your exercise. If at any time you feel pain or dizziness, stop and take a break. Hydrate before, during, and after exercising.
How to get help with a fitness plan
Need help getting started? Here are a few ideas to get you started with better health as you age.
- Health plans in some states offer SilverSneakers, a program that provides gym memberships and fitness classes for seniors.
- Join a local gym or YMCA that has exercise classes.
- Check out local classes at churches and community centers.
- Get a walking group together with friends.
The good news is that if you start on a healthy path early, the road will be easier as you age. Get into good habits of stretching and exercise so that you can remain strong and avoid heart disease throughout your retirement years.