by Jennifer Trizuto, M.P.T.
To many people, growing older means that life will slowly go downhill — but it doesn’t have to be that way. The picture we have of normal aging as a time of gradual loss of function isn’t necessarily accurate. While aging is inevitable, loss of function isn’t. Much of the decline in our ability to walk, get out of a chair, climb stairs, or make meals is due to inactivity, not aging, and can be prevented. When it comes to strength, energy, and fitness, the old saying still applies: “Use it or lose it.”
The benefits of regular activity have been studied and documented widely. Exercise strengthens muscles and maintains joint flexibility. It can lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and the risk of osteoporosis and help maintain healthy blood glucose levels. Exercise can also help you lose weight, reduce stress, and improve sleep, digestion, circulation, energy levels, and self-esteem. Finally, regular exercise can help you to function better and remain independent in spite of health problems.
The good news is that it is never too late to start exercising. Everyone can benefit from regular physical activity. But it is older people who have more at stake as they struggle to manage chronic health issues and maintain independence. The people most successful at aging are those who are physically active. Even a little physical activity can have great benefits for health and well-being.
What does “physically active” mean? The Surgeon General recommends 30 minutes of moderately intense activity (for example, brisk walking) on 5 or more days of the week. The 30 minutes can be accomplished in one stretch or in a few short bouts. Muscle strengthening and flexibility exercises are also important to a complete activity program. However, these recommendations may not be feasible for people with limited mobility. What if you cannot walk? What if getting out of a chair is difficult? What if you have been sedentary most of your life and are just now noticing the decrease in function described above? More good news is that there are exercises you can do without getting up from your chair.
Exercise classes and publications designed for those who cannot get out of a chair or who have limited mobility are gaining in popularity. Research has shown that people who participate in a seated exercise program two times a week increase leg strength compared with those who don’t participate. This is great news for people who experience arthritis-related mobility problems and are unable to participate in standard exercise classes.
What does a chair exercise program involve? Many of the same features as a standard exercise program, it turns out. Even though you are exercising in a seated position, you must still incorporate the three key elements of any exercise program: strengthening, stretching, and conditioning.
Strengthening the muscles surrounding your joints can help decrease pain and increase your ability to get out of your chair or go up and down stairs. To strengthen a muscle, you need to challenge it to work harder than it is used to working. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. Stronger muscles are better able to support your joints and absorb the stress put on the joints when you move.
Keeping your muscles flexible helps your joints maintain the range of motion needed to complete daily activities such as reaching for something in a cabinet or bending over to tie your shoes. In stretching exercises, you need to bend and straighten your joints as far as they can comfortably go.
Lastly, conditioning builds your endurance so that you feel fatigue less quickly and are better able to tolerate prolonged activity. Conditioning assures that you have enough energy to complete your everyday tasks and those activities that bring joy to your life, such as gardening or golf. Conditioning involves continuous movement of your arms and legs to get your blood pumping. Some common examples are walking, running, and dance classes. However, these are not appropriate for people who are unable to stand for exercise. For these people, sitting down to exercise is the next best thing.
When exercising in a seated position, it is relatively easy to do strengthening and stretching. You will see some basic examples of these types of exercises in Seated Exercises. Conditioning in a seated position, however, can be a little more difficult.
Some gyms offer equipment especially for people who need to sit to do their conditioning. There are recumbent bikes — essentially stationary bikes except that you sit against a backrest with your legs pedaling out in front of you. There are also “arm cycles” with cranks that you sit in front of and move with your arms like the pedals of a bike. These are both good options for people who have access to a gym. Another good way to complete the conditioning portion of your exercise program is to exercise in a pool. You can swim or use flotation devices in the deep end and even lightly “jog” on the pool floor. For people who do not have access to a gym or a pool, a portable pedal system is a good idea. These lightweight devices are like stationary bikes without the seat or handles. You just sit on a chair, place the pedal device in front of you on the floor, and pedal away. (The device may also be put on a table and pedaled with the arms.) All of these exercises require you to move continuously. The longer you do them, the more efficient your lungs and heart will be, and the more energy you will have.
Last Reviewed on August 8, 2012
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