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In some cases, it can improve health for older people who already have diseases and disabilities, if it's done on a long-term, regular basis.

What Kinds of Activities Improve Health and Ability?

In the introduction, we told you about four types of exercises that are important for helping older adults gain health benefits.

Endurance exercises are activities that increase your breathing and heart rate. They improve the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory system. Having more endurance not only helps keep you healthier; it can also improve your stamina for the tasks you need to do to live and do things on your own - climbing stairs and grocery shopping, for example. Endurance exercises also may delay or prevent many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, and others, and have been shown to reduce the overall death and hospitalization rates.

Strength exercises build your muscles, but they do more than just make you stronger. They may improve your independence by giving you more strength to do things on your own. Even very small increases in muscle can make a big difference in ability, especially for frail people. Strength exercises also increase your metabolism, helping to keep your weight and blood sugar in check. That's important, because obesity and diabetes are major health problems for older adults. Studies suggest that strength exercises also may help prevent osteoporosis.

Balance exercises help prevent a common problem in older adults: falls. In older people, falling is a major cause of broken hips and other injuries that often lead to disability and loss of independence. Some balance exercises build up your leg muscles; others improve your balance by requiring you to do simple activities like briefly standing on one leg.

Flexibility exercises
are stretching exercises. They are thought to help keep your body limber by stretching your muscles and the tissues that hold your body's structures in place. Although research hasn't proven, yet, that stretching exercises can improve your ability to live on your own and do things independently, studies are under way. Already, physical therapists and other health professionals recommend certain stretching exercises to help their patients recover from injuries and to prevent injuries from happening in the first place. Flexibility also may play a part in preventing falls.

Which Ones Should I Do, and How Much Should I Do?

As you read this book, you will learn more about which of these types of exercises will help you meet your health goals and about how you should do them. Some types of exercise improve just one area of health or ability. More often, though, an exercise has many different benefits.

In other words, as much as you can, it's best to increase both the types and amounts of exercises and physical activities you do. Gradually build up to include all four areas: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

You might be enthusiastic about getting started, now that you have read about all the benefits exercise can bring. Throughout this book, we emphasize the importance of starting out at a level you can manage and working your way up gradually. That's good advice to follow.

For one thing, if you do too much too quickly, you can damage your muscles and tissues, and that can keep you on the sidelines. For another, your enthusiasm needs to be with you for a lifetime. The benefits listed above come from making exercise and physical activity permanent habits. Starting out with one or two types of exercises that you really can manage and that you really can fit into your schedule, then adding more as you adjust, is one way of ensuring that you will stick with it.

One physician who specializes in exercise for older people puts it this way: "It's like starting out on a journey. You start with a single step."

How much you do depends on you and on your unique situation. For some of you, muscle-building exercise might mean pushing more than a hundred pounds of weight at the local gym to keep your legs in shape for hiking or jogging. For others, it might mean lifting 1 pound of weight to strengthen your arm muscles enough to use a washcloth. That might mean the dignity that comes from being able to wash yourself, instead of having someone else do it for you. That's a good place to start, for some older adults. The goal is to improve from wherever you are right now.

Some people are reluctant to start exercising because they are afraid it will be too strenuous. Researchers have found that you don't have to do strenuous exercises to gain health benefits; moderate exercises are effective, too. (You will read more about the difference between vigorous and moderate exercises later in this book.)

Summary

Research suggests that growing older doesn't mean you have to lose your strength and ability to do everyday tasks and the things you enjoy doing. But an inactive lifestyle does mean that you probably will lose some of your strength and ability, and that you will be at higher risk for diseases and disabilities. Fortunately, researchers have found that even many frail people can improve their health and independence by increasing their physical activity. Challenging exercises and physical activities done on a regular basis can help many older adults improve their health, even when done at a moderate level. They may prevent or delay a variety of diseases and disabilities associated with aging.

Four types of exercises are important for older adults:

Endurance activities increase heart rate and breathing for extended periods of time. They improve the health of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system, and have been shown to help prevent or delay some diseases.
Strength exercises make older adults strong enough to do the things they need to do and the things they like to do.
Balance exercises help prevent falls, a major cause of disability in older adults.
Stretching helps keep the body limber and flexible.
Gym & Exercise:
What Can Exercises Do for Me?

The notion that exercise is good for you is something everyone just always seems to have known. Somehow, though, older adults have been left out of the picture - until recently. A clear new picture is emerging from research: Older people of all ages and physical conditions have very much to gain from exercise and from staying physically active. They also have very much to lose if they become physically inactive - some degree of health and ability, for example.

Exercise isn't just for older adults in the younger age range, who live independently and are able to go on brisk jogs, although this book is very much for them, too. Researchers studied the question of whether exercise and physical activity also can improve the health of people who are 90 or older, who are frail, or who have the diseases that seem to accompany aging. We now know from reliable scientific studies that it can help. Staying physically active and exercising regularly can help prevent or delay some diseases and disabilities as people grow older.
What You Should Know about Exercise!