As women, the role of caretaker often falls to us — for our homes, our kids and eventually, our elderly relatives. And even if we aren’t living with our aging family members full-time, we often find ourselves checking in: are they taking their medications? Is the fridge stocked? Are they lonely?
One large piece of the puzzle that might slip through the cracks is physical fitness. Even though they’ve earned the right to kicking up their feet during their golden years, that doesn’t mean they should be lounging all day every day.
We spoke to OrthoCarolina Physical Therapist Gary Schneider about healthy elder habits and how to keep your loved ones fit and happy, and he said it boils down to a few things: staying active, listening to your body and getting help from a physical therapist if necessary.
But what does “staying active” actually mean?
Gary said the experts at the Department of Health and Human Services say adults should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in addition to two days of strength training.
According to a recent article published in the British Medical Journal, people who follow the aerobic exercise and strengthening guidelines have a reduced risk of all-cause mortality by 40 percent.
“That means from a big picture perspective, if you follow the guidelines, you’re 40% less likely to miss those important moments with your kids(and) grandkids. Pretty strong information!” Gary says.
So if your family member is becoming a couch potato during old age, encourage him or her to get active — in any capacity.
“Generally, activity is going to be better than no activity,” Gary says.
A simple suggestion? Take a walk.
One recent study found that higher step counts correlated with lower all-cause mortality. Looking for a ballpark number of steps to suggest for Grandma to take on her daily walk? Gary says 12,000 steps per day is a great goal.
But tell your aging relatives if their joints allow it, pick up the pace. According to the Institute of Clinical Excellence, no amount of walking will ever exceed the same benefit of running.
“Generally, high-intensity exercise is going to get far more bang for your buck versus lower intensity exercise,” Gary says. “High-intensity exercise is not nearly as dangerous for older adults as we used to think, and the health benefits are astronomical.”
Although lots of fitness facilities offer senior-specific classes, Grandpa might not be keen on hitting the gym during COVID. Fortunately, there are plenty of online fitness resources for seniors like Silver Sneakers and VeryWellFit. You could also encourage them to search YouTube for workouts catered to seniors.
Overcoming aches and pains
Of course, getting or staying active in old age doesn’t come without challenges.
“I tell my patients is that as the body gets older, it takes longer for things to happen,” Gary says. “Messages move slower throughout the communication highways. So, balance becomes harder and the body takes longer to recover than previously. Muscle or joint soreness lasts longer, as structures are telling you that they may need more time to prepare for the normal amount of gardening or doubles tennis match each week.”
The answer, Gary says, is to listen to your body.
“Rest and recover when we need to rest and recover, but then do not avoid an activity or movement because of the pain,” Gary says. “Try the activity in a modified way. Play tennis but just walk that day, or only garden half the amount of time, or just walk half the normal route. Generally remaining active is key.”
If you find your relative complaining often about aches and pains while exercising, suggest paying a visit to a physical therapist.
Gary says in North Carolina, the general public is allowed to see a physical therapist before seeing a physician.
“If you aren’t looking for medication/injections/surgery and are just looking for guidance with movement-based activities, a physical therapist tends to save people a lot of energy and money in the long run,” Gary says.