Senior Fitness 101 – The Complete Guide

Seniors it’s time to boost your health and quality of life

According to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, only about 20% of American adults consistently get enough physical activity (aerobic and strength training). Statistics also show that up to 34% of those aged 65 to 74 and up to 44% of those 75 and older are considered “physically active.”

Harvard Medical School states that adults over the age of 30 can lose up to 5% of their muscle mass per decade. Given the lack of physical activity among senior citizens and the body’s natural loss of performance with age, it’s no surprise that conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis are being diagnosed more frequently.

Senior health, fitness, and nutrition are all unique fields that don’t seem to apply the normal standards set by other populations. That’s why it’s important that you adjust your eating plan and exercise routine to maximize your overall health as you enter your senior years.

In this guide, we’ll go over nutritional guidelines to improve your fitness, how to adapt your fitness routine based on your physical abilities, and how to target your overall fitness.

Senior Nutritional Guidelines

Nutrition and fitness are two completely separate areas of health, yet they both heavily depend on one another. After all, you can’t expect to boost your flexibility, strength, endurance, or even burn fat if you’re not fueling your body properly.

There are plenty of nutritional issues associated with the senior years. Most importantly, you might have a lack of appetite due to some medications, physical difficulty making or preparing foods, and even dental issues that make eating difficult.

As you age, some nutrients become even more important to your overall health. Let’s go over the best ways to ramp up your nutritional intake and the nutrients you should be focusing on.

Nutrient-Dense Foods

Since your appetite might not be as strong and nutrition is more important than ever, your goal in your senior years should be to focus on nutrient-dense foods. In essence, you want to make sure that you’re using your calories wisely and actually getting something out of each and every food you eat.

What’s most important are fruits and vegetables. Not only are fruits and vegetables loaded with vitamins and minerals, but they’re also useful when it comes to boosting exercise performance. They’re beneficial in enhancing your stamina and athletic performance while also reducing your risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.

You don’t have to entirely cut carbohydrates out of your diet, as your body desperately craves them, but you should make every effort to transition to whole grains when possible. Whole grains offer substantial amounts of fiber, which improve digestion and reduce your risk of developing chronic conditions like obesity.

Sometimes, just being nutrient-dense is enough. Some examples of nutrient-dense foods you might want to add to your diet include:

  • Spinach
  • Eggs
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Salmon
  • Kale
  • Peas
  • Nuts
  • Beans

Just remember that there is such a thing as having too much of a good thing. Make sure you’re keeping an eye on recommended serving sizes and not loading up too much on these healthy food options.

Key Nutrients to Focus On

As you age, your nutritional needs won’t be the same as they were when you were a child or even ten years earlier. Since this is all new territory for you, we’re first going to go over how your macronutrient needs change as you get older.

  • Carbohydrates: When you enter your senior years, it’s normal for energy levels to dwindle and appetite levels to soar. Combined, these two factors lead to an increased risk of obesity. By loading up on carbohydrates, you can help to reduce your appetite, feel more full, and improve your energy levels.
  • Proteins: Since you’re losing about 5% of your muscle mass every decade, that means muscle wasting with age is common and practically unavoidable. By increasing your protein intake, you can assist your body in its attempt to maintain whatever muscle mass you still have, and maybe even build some more.
  • Low-fat: Your body needs some amount of fat intake every day to aid in nutrient absorption and temperature control, but your metabolism drops significantly as you age. That means the more fat you eat, the more body fat you’ll likely develop, and the more likely you are to develop obesity.

In addition to getting a proper amount of each macronutrient, you also need to make sure you’re getting enough of the micronutrients too. These are usually vitamins and minerals and play a pivotal role in the functions that occur within your body. Here’s a look at some to zero in on.

  • Calcium & Vitamin D: As you enter your senior years, the amount of bone mass that you’re losing on a yearly basis also increases. The best way to prevent this bone loss and possible development of conditions like osteoporosis is to add substantial levels of vitamin D and calcium to your diet.
  • Fiber: You might know fiber as a useful nutrient that helps move the digestive process along, but it also plays a vital role in fitness as well. Fiber can help to make you feel fuller for longer while also helping to lower your blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
  • Potassium: If you know you’re not eating a balanced diet right now, then there’s practically a guarantee that you’re not getting enough potassium. By increasing your potassium intake, you can improve the functioning of your heart and nerves while also improving your energy levels.
  • Water: Staying hydrated is important for just about every function within the body. Water helps with joint lubrication, which is great if you have arthritis or just sore joints, as well as assisting with nutrient absorption. The best way to improve your water intake is by swapping out sodas, juices, and coffee with plain water.

Simply put, your current level of nutrition and your body type will determine how a possible exercise routine will go. By properly fuelling your body, you can guarantee better results and feel much better in the process.

Knowing Your Physical Limitations

As you know, aging comes with plenty of uncomfortable and perhaps painful medical issues. Though most are treatable with medication, surgery, or therapy, they might still hold you back when it comes to achieving your fitness goals.

On the other hand, physical activity can actually be monumental in helping to treat or reduce the symptoms of some common health conditions found mostly in seniors. Even though you might have to adjust your usual exercise routine, you might actually be improving your condition through exercise.

If you have a diagnosed medical condition, you’ll need to make adjustments to possible health and fitness routines to guarantee you stay safe while also improving your fitness. First things first, make sure you contact your doctor first before beginning an exercise routine if you have a pre-existing health condition.

Heart Disease

According to MedlinePlus, one of the best things you can do after a heart disease diagnosis is to stay physically active. In fact, aerobic activities that require your heart to work a little harder are great for strengthening your heart and possibly relieving the symptoms of heart disease.

Since your heart isn’t in the best shape when you have heart disease, you want to be careful when you’re attempting to engage in a fitness routine. Choose a low-intensity exercise like walking or swimming first a few times a week. Resistance training is suitable too.

If you notice that you’re seeing improvements and no symptoms are increasing, you can gradually increase your intensity and work up to about five times per week. Just make sure that you’re giving yourself enough time to cool off and rest and not pushing yourself too hard.

Arthritis

Having arthritis might make some types of exercise painful, so you’re going to want to focus on low-intensity exercises that are considered low-impact. But we want to make it clear that exercise is extremely useful in treating arthritis, being proven to improve joint and muscle strength while also drastically reducing joint stiffness.

According to the Mayo Clinic, ellipticals, swimming, and recumbent bikes are all viable options if you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis. On the other hand, light strength training exercises can be monumental in improving range of motion and joint strength.

Make sure you’re keeping an eye on your symptoms during exercise and stop if exercise is becoming too painful on your joints. 

You might want to use heat packs before and after your exercise to relieve any pain you might be feeling and improve the healing process.

Osteoporosis

When your bones are weakened and porous due to osteoporosis, you need to approach exercise a little more strategically. If you’re specifically looking to reduce the symptoms of osteoporosis, weight training is a great option.

When you’re lifting weights, you’re putting extra tension on your bones. In the process, you’re also encouraging the bone-making cells in the bone to work even harder. That means that resistance training exercises can actually help to improve bone density and strength too.

Since your bones are a little more brittle due to osteoporosis, any exercise you do should be in moderation. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, resistance bands, jumping rope, and light resistance training are great choices.

Diabetes

Many people think that diabetes only has an effect on blood sugar levels, but these effects can impact a person both physically and mentally. Exercise is actually a great tool for diabetics looking to get better control over their condition.

Since your blood sugar levels might be a little sporadic, the most important thing you need to remember is to test your blood sugar before and after a workout. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, you should eat a snack high in sugar or carbs prior to exercising if your blood sugar is a little low. If your blood sugar is too high, do not exercise and be sure to wait until your ketone levels return to normal before attempting to exercise.

Senior Exercise Guidelines

Not taking into account any pre-existing conditions you might have, the National Council on Aging recommends that seniors exercise about five days per week for about 30 minutes at a time. Two of these days should be more focused on strength training.

This idea is further backed up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which states that all American adults (regardless of age) need approximately 150 minutes of exercise per week. However, you can simply do 75 minutes of exercise a week if you’re working out at a greater intensity.

No matter which guidelines you’re following, both aerobic and strength training are a little bit different when it comes to seniors. That’s why we’re going to go over the guidelines you should be following to improve or maintain your health.

Cardiovascular Endurance (Aerobic Training)

The American Heart Association suggests about 150 minutes of cardiovascular training each week. That means you’ll be doing, on average, five days of exercise during the week for about 30 minutes each day.

While the 150 minutes is wildly important to maintaining and improving your health, just how intense the exercise is will also be a determining factor in the results you’ll see. To get the most benefit from cardiovascular activities, you need to be exercising within your Target Heart Rate Zone (THRZ).

For reference, your heart rate is the number of times your heart beats per minute to distribute blood to the rest of your body. The higher your heart rate, the more your heart has to work to perform this task.

How To Calculate: 

  • Subtract your age from 220. This is your maximum heart rate and is the heart rate you should avoid exceeding when you’re exercising, as it could be dangerous for your heart and your entire body.
  • Multiply your maximum heart rate by 0.5. This is the lower end of your target heart rate zone. In essence, this is the bare minimum your heart rate should be when exercising in order to see beneficial results.
  • Multiply your maximum heart rate by 0.85. This is the upper end of your target heart rate zone. That means you should avoid going over this heart rate during exercise if at all possible.

Since you’re multiplying two sets of numbers, you should be getting a range when it comes to your target heart rate zone. For example…

If you’re 60 years old. You would subtract 60 from 220 to get 160. This is your max heart rate and you should avoid going over 160 beats per minute.

Multiply 160 and 0.5 and you get 80. Multiply 160 and 0.85 and you get 131. Given the range, you should be exercising at between 80 and 131 beats per minute during exercise to actually improve your health.

Different Types of Aerobic Activities

Though some types of aerobic activities are much better than others when it comes to health improvements, something is always better than nothing. So, if the only way you can get exercise today is by walking around the house, that’s much better than just sitting on the couch.

Aerobic exercise is anything that keeps your heart rate up and for a long period of time (i.e. 15 to 30 minutes in most cases). 

Some examples of different types of aerobic or cardiovascular activities.

  • Treadmill
  • Elliptical
  • Biking
  • Swimming
  • Hiking
  • Dancing
  • Water aerobics
  • Yoga
  • Speed walking
  • Jogging 
  • Pilates

All of these forms of exercise can be beneficial, so long as you’re keeping your heart rate in your THRZ as much as possible. The best thing you can do is choose an exercise that you can stick to and genuinely enjoy doing.

The Benefits of Cardiovascular Activity for Seniors

Now that we’ve gone over what cardiovascular activities are and how to perform them, we want to go over why you should consider adding them to your routine. In particular, we’re going to focus on the benefits that this type of exercise has on senior health.

  • Improved heart health: When you get enough cardiovascular exercise on a weekly basis, your heart becomes stronger and doesn’t have to work as hard, even when you’re not exercising. In the process, your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and heart rate will lower. This can reduce your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack.
  • Improved energy levels: Even though you might be extremely tired after getting some cardio in, you might actually feel more energized and refreshed afterward. That’s because you’ll be able to sleep better at night, increase the feel-good hormones in your body (i.e. Endorphins), and improve your endurance so it won’t tire you out so much.
  • Increased metabolism: No matter which type of aerobic activity you choose to do, you’ll be increasing your metabolism, at least for a little while during and after exercise. In the process, that means you’ll be burning extra calories during the day and helping yourself to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Greater quality of life: If you’re over the age of 50, you know how painful it can be to just get out of bed in the morning or put your shoes on. When you engage in aerobic activities, you can improve your bone, joint, and muscle health, which can reduce chronic pains and aches that you might be experiencing.

Even though aerobic exercise seems a little time consuming (150 minutes a week), that doesn’t mean that it’s a waste of time. If you’re not quite ready for 150 minutes a week, slowly work your way up to that amount of exercise over the period of a few weeks or months.

Strength Training

In your prime, you may have spent hours in the gym on a weekly basis looking to set new personal records on the squat, deadlift, and bench press. While you probably won’t be doing that in your senior years, that doesn’t mean that you won’t be strength training at all.

Most major health organizations recommend strength training at least twice a week to maintain muscle, bone, and joint health. Since you might not be as strong or as powerful as you once were, you’ll want to start out slow and at a lighter weight.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, seniors should focus on starting with 10 to 15 repetitions per set. This places more of an emphasis on muscular endurance, which can help to tone your muscles and body without giving you a bulky appearance.

But we know those guidelines are a little vague. That’s why we’re going to go over some additional guidelines to follow when it comes to strength training in your senior years.

  • Start with the lowest possible weight. If you’re already pretty well-versed in resistance training, you don’t have to go for the 5-pound dumbbells if you know you can do more. Just avoid going for the heaviest possible weights and allow yourself to work up to heavier weights.
  • 1 to 3 sets per exercise. As much as you might want to tone your upper arms or abs, you need to make sure that you’re focusing on all muscle groups in the body. With that said, complete 1 to 3 sets per exercise and do a few exercises per muscle group.
  • Limit workouts to 8 to 10 exercises. You can decide on a split routine or a full-body routine, but you should keep your workouts to about 8 to 10 exercises per workout. Considering the recommended number of sets, that means up to 30 sets per workout (which can be very draining, FYI).
  • Work each muscle group 2 to 3 times per week. If you want to see the best results in terms of increased tone and muscle mass, you’re going to want to hit each muscle group a few times per week. This is made possible with full-body routines, where you can do the same exact routine every other day.

By doing your best to adhere to these guidelines, you can keep yourself safe while in the gym without injuring yourself or overdoing it. 

The Benefits of Strength Training

Even if you’re not planning to go to the beach in your new swimsuit, that doesn’t mean that strength training isn’t important to your overall health. Strength training is about much more than your physical appearance. Let’s go over a few benefits of strength training.

  • Improved strength: Working your muscles with resistance training isn’t just great for building muscle mass. It can also help to prevent muscle wasting that comes with age and also improve joint and bone strength at the same time. Overall, that means a lower risk of arthritis, osteoporosis, and immobility.
  • Greater weight control: Even though you might gain a few pounds of muscle mass by engaging in a consistent strength training routine, you’ll actually be able to better control your body weight. That’s because strength training helps to ramp up muscle mass while also burning a decent number of calories.
  • Improved balance: As you get older, you might notice that your balance isn’t quite what it used to be. When you engage in a strength training routine, your muscles, joints, and nerves will all work better and in conjunction with one another. This can improve balance and reduce the risk of falls.

Though you might be afraid of breaking a bone or hurting yourself while in the gym, starting with a low weight and not going at it so intensely is a great way to enhance your health and improve your overall quality of life.

Other Physical Activities

We’ve been talking about specific types of physical activity thus far (cardiovascular and strength), but there are also tons of ways to get active without having to go to the gym. In fact, there are a few methods that you can do right now while spending some quality time with friends and family.

Here are some examples of different physical activities that might be a little more entertaining.

  • Cornhole
  • Bocce
  • Tennis
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Hiking
  • Dance classes

You don’t always have to do something planned out and elaborate to improve your cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, or balance. Just make sure that you’re moving as much as possible in your daily life.

Keep in mind that it might also be a great idea to do several different types of exercise throughout the week. This is a great way to target a unique set of joints, muscles, and skills that one type of exercise might not hit.

Final Thoughts

Even if your energy levels are low, your appetite is low, and you’ve been diagnosed with health conditions, that doesn’t mean that there’s no point in exercising. In fact, working out in your senior years can add several years to your lifespan with a little effort.

Here are some guidelines you should work to follow in order to improve the overall quality of your life in your senior years.

  • Cardiovascular or aerobic activities at least 5 times a week for 30 minutes at a time (150 minutes total)
  • Strength training at least 2 times a week focusing on the 10 to 15 repetition range
  • Understand your current medical diagnoses and the limitations they might bring (as well as the benefits of exercising with this condition)
  • Follow a nutrient-dense diet that focuses on the nutrients your body needs most of during your senior years (i.e. Vitamin D, calcium, fiber, etc.)

Overall, it’s not as much about meeting the guidelines set in place for you as it is about improving your wellbeing and extending your lifespan. So, do everything in your power to help improve your fitness in your senior years.

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