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Aging can lead to inevitable declines in strength, balance and flexibility. The CDC recommends that people age 65 and older get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.
Editor’s note: Before starting any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if pain occurs.
People often lament gray hair and wrinkled skin as the most unpleasant side effects of aging. It may be encouraging to see your youthful appearance slipping away, but the level of your strength, balance and flexibility is more concerning. Significant deterioration in these areas can lead to pain, falls and fractures, and overall loss of mobility and function. Think about the inability to play with grandchildren, climb stairs, or carry groceries.
No matter how active we are, our muscle and strength decline as we age. In fact, muscle mass and strength peak between the ages of 30 and 35. After that, they are slowly but steadily decreasing. At age 65 for women and 70 for men, these declines accelerate National Institutes of Health. Similarly, everyone’s balance and flexibility decrease with age due to changes in vision, sensory nerves, joints, ligaments, and more.
“Joints in the spine, hips, knees and shoulders naturally become arthritic, and our ligaments and the interfaces between tendons and muscles become more rigid,” said Dr. George Eldeiri, a sports medicine physician at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute in Winter Garden, Florida. “It’s a very well-known process.”
As these declines are well documented, the The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Adults age 65 and older engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. In addition, they should do strength training and balance exercises at least twice a week.
Adults age 65 and older should do strength training and balance exercises at least twice each week.
How to improve the quality and quantity of your life
Strength, balance and flexibility are all important, but is lifting one more important than the other? In general, if you want to improve the quality and quantity of your life, getting in some aerobic exercise should be your main concern, said Dr. John Higgins, a sports cardiologist at the McGovern School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. As the combination of balance and flexibility comes in third, resistance training is important.
On an individual level, it all depends on the patient, Elderi said. “For a masters athlete, strength and flexibility are very important to help reduce performance and injuries,” he said. “Someone who is 85 and wants to be active will focus on balance and strength to reduce their risk of falls.”
There will also be differences based on one’s health. A person with arthritis should focus on joint flexibility first, while someone who has had a knee replacement should focus on strength training, Eldery said. If you have osteoporosis, it’s important to maintain balance to avoid falls.
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Despite evidence supporting the importance of physical activity, 28% of Americans 50 and older are inactive. 2016 CDC study. In addition, inactivity increases with age, with more than 35% of people 75 and older being inactive. That’s a problem. Physical activity improves mental health and prevents dementia and cognitive decline. Combine that with the benefits of strength, balance, and flexibility, and you’ve got a better chance of aging well.
Combining strength training with weights and aerobic exercise is a great way for older adults to stay on the move.
“Think of it like a pyramid,” Higgins said. “Aerobic exercise is at the top of the pyramid, the building blocks that support strength, balance and flexibility. Without those foundations, the pyramid collapses. You can’t get just one of those things.
Remember, you don’t need a gym membership or a personal trainer if you’re excited to incorporate aerobic exercise, strength training, and balance and flexibility into your weekly routine. This important work can be seamlessly woven into your life.
For example, playing golf and gardening are interesting ways to add some aerobic exercise to your life. The same goes for walking a dog. Strap on a weighted backpack during your walk, and now you’re “rugging,” a military-style exercise that incorporates aerobic exercise. Strength training. Yoga is an activity that eases the body, not only does it help with flexibility, but it also builds strength and activates your core. Standing on one leg at the grocery store or in front of the television is an easy way to add some balance training to your life.
“A lot of people like to complicate things by having a plan and measuring their progress, but it doesn’t need to be complicated,” Eldery said. “Incorporate these things into your daily life and stay consistent. The benefits will come over time.”
Higgins agreed. “If you don’t believe that strength training, balance and flexibility really help, try it for a few months and see what a difference it makes,” she said. “Whether it’s playing with the grandkids or doing an exciting activity like zip lining, you’ll probably find that you enjoy things more and can do regular aerobic work with ease and less injury.”
Melanie Radzicki McManus A freelance writer specializing in hiking, travel and fitness.