Tom Essman is 72, but he feels 25. He and his wife, Karen, 68, bicycle about 15 miles round trip, five days a week, to a park from their Hollywood home. They like to walk in the afternoons, and frequently work out at the gym.
Being active as you age helps your physical and mental well-being, medical experts say. Essman said it keeps him young.
“It feels good. I have nothing that bothers me,” he said. “Internally, I’m about as pretty as I can be.”
Essman’s doctor, Dr. Neldes Marranzini, a geriatric physician with Memorial Health System in Hollywood, said the Essmans are great examples of how exercise can help maintain good health. But being active doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym hard every day, she said.
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“Exercise in the aging population doesn’t necessarily have to be aerobics, like doing cardio at Orangetheory Fitness, to see certain benefits,” Marranzini said. “In fact, studies on healthy older adults doing aerobic exercise show the benefit is not any greater than doing something a little gentler that focuses on balance and flexibility. There’s a lot of research that certain physical activity, especially tai chi and yoga, help balance, flexibility and fall prevention.”
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise helps maintain weight and aids in preventing chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart problems. It also can help with keeping your mind alert.
“Regular physical activity is linked with decreased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, and it leads to improved cognitive performance in older adults,” said Thomas Robertson, chief of psychology at Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital in Miami. “Regular exercise also helps reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Adults who exercise regularly in mid-life become less likely to develop dementia after age 65 compared with sedentary peers.”
Staying active is useful for people who are already dealing with issues like depression, he said. “Exercise can be as effective as psychotherapy and medication,” Robertson said. “We use it as a treatment, as well as a prevention.”
In general, people who exercise have a more stable mood, and exercise, such as yoga, is key to stress reduction. “Physiologically, exercise results in improved heart rate and lower levels of cortisol, stress hormones,” he said.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 150 minutes of exercise per week to obtain a benefit, Robertson said. That could be walking, swimming or weight training, as long as there is an aerobic component that gets the heart rate up and a sweat going.
“If someone is impaired or has difficulty walking, any type of walking will improve functioning,” he said. “Any basic exercise will help muscle tone and heart function. Brisk if you can, slower and more frequent if you can’t.”
The National Institute on Aging has tips on how to start exercising with a Campbell soup can — which can be used as one-pound weights for your arms and legs, Marranzini said. “It’s not expensive, and you can start with chair exercises,” she said. “Once those have been mastered, you move on.”
Someone who has been wheelchair-bound or sedentary for a long time has to build slowly, she said. In geriatrics, tai chi is advocated, “because it tackles all of the defenses we use for fall prevention and functional decline,” she said. “Weight-bearing exercises like tai chi and walking can help build bone density and prevent osteoporosis.”
There is good research on the benefit of tai chi and yoga involving poses, Robertson said. “It’s the combination of exercise, balance and mindfulness. If you think about it, if you’re doing yoga poses or tai chi, the mind has to be very focused to maintain the pose,” he said. “If your mind goes to picking up the dry cleaning, you fall. Only if you’re in the moment, mindfully holding the pose, can you maintain it, and that is an aspect of mental cognitive functioning that exercising helps.”
Marranzini said there are a lot of barriers to exercise, including the fear of falling and injury. “I always tell patients, we start slowly with a low degree, and build it back up as we feel comfortable,” she said.
For older people who have never exercised, it’s usually helpful to do something in a group setting, Robertson said. “Join a class. Go to a rec or senior center, where someone leads you through activities. Walk with a friend. There’s a social component to it that’s motivating,” he said.
Hispanic study at UM
Hispanics are the most sedentary segment of the older adult population, and are at greater risk for issues like depression, said Daniel Jimenez, a psychologist at UHealth, the University of Miami Health System.
“Some reasons include poverty, discrimination, legal issues, migration, physical health disparities (high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity), social isolation and lifestyle, such as highly sedentary and poor nutrition,” he said.
UHealth is kicking off a study that uses exercise and social activities to stem depression and anxiety among local Hispanic seniors. Called HOLA — Happy Older Latinos are Active — the four-year study is looking for Hispanics ages 60 and older who have not been diagnosed as clinically depressed, but who have related symptoms and are at risk.
During the 16-week exercise program, participants will be broken into groups of six and will spend 45 minutes at local parks stretching and doing moderately intense exercise, including walking. For information, call 305-355-9200 and select option 2, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.