Now that the weather is finally warming up and treacherous ice and snow are no longer a danger, it's a perfect time for seniors to get outdoors and enjoy some exercise. Walking, jogging, swimming and hiking are wonderful ways to stay fit while taking advantage of fresh spring air.
There are many benefits to maintaining a light-to-moderate exercise routine. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels, alleviate depression and anxiety, and to help control blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also decreases the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. It may even help to improve memory and slow the advance of dementia.
Naturally, there are precautions seniors should take before exercising — especially if they have mobility issues, a history of osteoporosis or other age-related physical concerns. If you’re a senior, or if you’re helping an aging parent stay healthy, first check with a doctor before beginning any exercise regimen. Then pay attention to these five safety tips as you get out and about this spring.
1. Stay hydrated.
Drink plenty of clear fluids before and after exercise. Seniors have a higher risk of becoming dehydrated because many of them take daily blood pressure medications (diuretics, or "water pills") that cause faster water loss from the body.
Dehydration can lead to a variety of serious consequences for older people: dizziness resulting in falls, intractable vomiting, confusion or even heart palpitations.
Before exercising, stay away from caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee and sodas. If you stick with water to hydrate, make sure that also you eat something after you exercise, so that you can replace electrolytes lost to sweating.
Or, try drinking a glass of Gatorade G2 (the reduced sugar kind), Powerade Zero, Vitamin Water Zero, or even some Pedialyte — all will rehydrate you while replacing some of the salts your body needs to function well.
2. Set realistic exercise goals.
Let's face it: Most of us will never again be as fit as we were in our young adulthood. You don't need to tear up the weight circuit or run circles around your peers — you just need to maintain your physical and mental fitness. A brisk 30-minute walk, a friendly game of tennis or some light weight-training is more than enough daily exercise for an otherwise healthy senior.
And, if reduced mobility, health concerns, or a low overall fitness level keep you or your senior loved one from participating in moderate exercise, consult your doctor to develop an exercise plan tailored to your physical abilities and unique needs.
3. Use the buddy system.
There's safety in numbers. Exercising alone is a bit more risky for seniors; a fall or injury could incapacitate you and leave you unable to get immediate help.
The solution? Find a walking buddy, a swim partner or a hiking or mall-walking group, and get moving with people who will not only encourage your fitness efforts, but also serve as mutual safety monitors.
4. Wait two hours after eating before you exercise.
Remember when your mother wouldn't let you go back in the pool for a half-hour after lunch? Maybe she was on to something. Although the connection between eating and muscle cramps is probably just an old wives' tale, the correlation between meal intake and blood sugar spikes is most assuredly not.
For seniors taking multiple daily medicines (a condition known as "polypharmacy"), or for older people managing obesity or diabetes, blood sugar levels can show exaggerated rises just after eating. Vigorously exercising just after a meal can initially spike blood sugar even further (exercise sends a signal to the liver, telling it to break down stored fat and release it into the blood as usable sugar) or, after a period of activity, cause blood sugar levels to fall too low.
Abnormal blood sugar levels can cause dizziness, confusion and even shock-like symptoms, so you'll want to allow time to monitor how you are feeling after a meal. If you are diabetic, make sure you regularly monitor your finger-stick blood sugar (FSBS), take your insulin and/or diabetes medications exactly as prescribed and regularly follow up with your primary care doctor.
5. Don't exercise when you don't feel well.
Don’t push yourself too far. If you feel a bit under the weather, extra rest, plenty of fluid intake and good nutrition will probably do you more good than working up a sweat.
The same is probably true if you experience increasing joint or muscle pain after a few days of working out. Take a day off and contact your doctor if things don't improve soon.
But if you feel faint, nauseated, dizzy, unusually sweaty, unsteady, confused or have chest pain or severe abdominal pain, you might need more than a day or two of rest — you might need immediate medical attention.
We here at Marjorie P. Lee want to help you stay happy, alert and healthy.
Use the safety tips above as a guide when you exercise. The benefits of exercise are clear. Now let's focus on how to keep you, or your aging parent, safe this spring!