Health in Your 60s and beyond
Exercising for healthy aging: it’s never too late to gain real benefits from working out
Major health improvements are possible, regardless of your age when you begin to exercise. For a woman in her 60s—who may be concerned about losses in bone density, muscle mass, balance, flexibility and agility, plus problems with blood pressure and joint degeneration—exercise can be an alternative to some medications or surgery.
Regular physical activity can help prevent or improve many chronic conditions and prolong a healthy, active lifestyle. While a well-rounded exercise program includes cardiovascular, flexibility and strength work, specific recommendations vary, of course, based on your individual needs and goals.
Building Bone Density
Rapid loss of bone density happens to women in their 60s, so osteoporosis is a special concern. Studies of the effects of exercise on bone density show that while even light exercise is good, exercise at moderate intensity is better.
The minimum recommendation is 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise 3 days per week, but 5 days is ideal. Weight-bearing exercise as simple as walking has proven to make a significant difference in bone density. Strength training with weights or resistance tubes at a moderate level has an even greater impact on bone density.
If one of your goals is to build bone density, you’ll want to include full body strength training—such as weight lifting—3 times per week combined with other weight-bearing exercise for cardio.
When lifting weights, you should perform about 2 to 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions of each exercise. Although you may have heard “higher reps, lower weight,” that doesn’t apply here. To improve bone density, it’s better to do fewer reps at a higher weight—the key is to challenge your muscles without sacrificing form and technique.
Preventing and Reversing Chronic Conditions
Physical activity can have a positive impact on diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and depression—all common health issues for women in their 60s.
A combination of resistance training and cardio at moderate intensity for 30 minutes a minimum of 3 days per week can help prevent a variety of chronic conditions. The goal is to have your heart rate in a range that requires some feeling of exertion for at least 20 minutes.
But even mild intensity exercise can help, so even a few minutes a day is better than no exercising at all. Adding just a few minutes of activity each day can begin to improve your physical, emotional and cognitive functioning. Exercise is powerful medicine!
Strength, particularly leg strength, is critical for mobility and independence as you age. Resistance training 3 to 5 days per week significantly reduces your risk from falling and need for aids such as walkers or canes.
For those with a high risk of falling, a combination of functional training—exercises that mimic everyday movements and strengthen the core—and specific balance training works best. For others, an integrated program of cardiovascular, flexibility and functional resistance training is sufficient.
Reducing Cancer Risk
Overweight women have higher estrogen levels than those at a healthy weight. And since elevated estrogen levels have been associated with increased incidence of breast and ovarian cancer, staying at a healthy weight is key.
Research has shown that exercise significantly reduces estrogen levels in women in their 50s and early 60s, which correlates with decreased incidence of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. So indirectly, there’s decreased cancer risk in women who exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
As with other conditions, every session of exercise helps—but the greatest benefit comes from 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 3 days per week.
Exercising and Medical Conditions—Some Questions
Should I consult a doctor before I exercise? If you have a health condition that requires you to take regular medication and you plan to exercise to consistently raise your heart rate, check with your physician first.
Do I need special monitoring when I work out? If you’re on medication for heart rate, if you take more than one anti-hypertensive drug, or if you’re on insulin, your physician should strictly define exercise limits before you work up a sweat or get your heart rate up.
If you have diabetes, check your glucose level before you exercise. If it’s too high, don’t work out that day. If it’s low, you need carbohydrates before your workout. And be aware of signs of hypoglycemia and have quick access to glucose tabs, sports drinks or something to elevate blood sugar quickly.
If you’re hypertensive, check your blood pressure before exercise. If you’re taking blood pressure medicine, monitor your hydration, change from standing to sitting or reclining positions slowly, and leave time for a thorough cool-down.
Dr. Degnan, a board certified orthopedic surgeon, serves as Vice Chairman for the Sentara Quality Care Integrated Network – Central Region. As Medical Director at ACAC, he oversees the club’s physician referred exercise program. 610-431-7000; ACAC.com.
Exercise Intensity Levels
It’s important to understand exercise intensity levels. Intense exercise, such as interval training and boot camp-style conditioning programs, may be appropriate for some older adults. If you’re in your 60s, check with your physician first to evaluate risks and rewards.
Low-intensity: Exercise feels easy. Your breathing doesn’t change much. You don’t sweat unless you’re in a hot, humid environment.
Moderate-intensity: Exercise feels somewhat hard. You may break a sweat 5 or 10 minutes into it. Your breathing becomes heavier but not labored. Most people can carry on a conversation.
High-intensity: Exercise feels hard. You may begin sweating within just a few minutes. Breathing is deep and rapid. You probably can speak only a few words before having to stop and take a breath.
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