Exercise for the Elderly

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The past year has seen mounting evidence of the strong cumulative benefits from physical activity at every age, not least for persons over 65. Yet as the time for New Year’s resolutions rolls around once again, we see the same bleak media predictions of how few people, among all those who resolve to begin a new exercise regimen, will actually keep it up for more than a month, if that.   

I have recently learned of a Swedish website for an excellent manual used by health professionals to advise about physical exercise for prevention and treatment of a variety of disease conditions, such as obesity, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, and asthma. It also has more general chapters, including ones concerning the effects of physical activity, the role of motivation, health considerations for strength training, children and young people, and the elderly.

I, for one, have learned a lot from looking at a number of the chapters, even though I have always taken an interest in exercise, beginning with vain attempts, at eleven, to emulate with friends the 1945 Swedish world record holder of our hero Gunder Hägg by running along the roads of a Stockholm suburb. I am convinced that perusing selected chapters in the manual could help individuals seeking the extra motivation to strengthen their resolve to exercise more, and more wisely.

The link to the website is: http://www.fyss.se/

By clicking on this link, one can download the English version, then in turn download any desired chapters. The introduction to the English version begins as follows: 

     “Physical activity in the prevention and treatment of disease summarizes the up-to-date scientific knowledge on how to prevent and treat various diseases and conditions using physical activity. The book covers most areas of disease where physical activity has a documented effect. By combining recommendations on suitable exercise activities with a description of the potential risks of physical activity for various patient groups, this handbook can comprehensively be used by anyone working with physical activity and health.”

I was interested to see that Scandinavian health professionals are increasingly giving patients written prescriptions for recommended types and levels of exercise. The idea seems to be that at least some patients might take the advice more seriously if it is written down in such a way. Similarly, we already know that individuals who actually write down their own exercise goals and plans are more likely to follow through than those who simply rely on their “mental notebooks.”

Here’s to more success this year with those New Year’s resolutions!

Sissela Bok, 79, is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. Her most recent book is Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (Yale University Press, 2011).



7 Responses to “Exercise for the Elderly”

  1. Cathy Utzschneider

    Thank you for this blog! I will look forward to buying and reading your book — which I may be able to use in my course. Happy New Year and you have a terrific daughter (and that’s not why I commented). 🙂

    • Sissela Bok

      Thank you, Cathy. I am grateful to Viki (Bok) for introducing me to your 2011 book “Move! How Women Can Achieve Athletic Goals at Any Age.”

  2. Alastair Macdonald

    Dear Sissela

    Thanks for your blog. Also thanks for the link to the manual on exercise.

    I am a mere 69 years old and have had the “priveledge” of being on call as a renal physician over the New Year period. During the time on call I have managed various activities such as walking in the gaardens adjacent to my home, cycling around the bays of my home town Wellington (New Zealand) and swimming. No records were broken !!

    I am sure that my mind is sharper and I can have that extra helping of food and not worry, most of which I put down to the absolute importance of exercise in our lives.

    I am reminded of the valuable advice given by the 14th Earl of Derby who very presciently observed that:

    “Those who do not find time to exercise,sooner or later will have to find time for illness.”

  3. Jerome Medalie

    I’d like to add to your encouragement. At 87 and 1/2, I have not stopped exercising 4/5 times a week fairly strenuously, 30-35 minutes, 2/3ds on an exercise bike and the rest on a 30 year old (simple)” Total Gym”, pulling my body up an incline. I have abandoned the heavier free weights. When I finish I’m breathing very hard and with above 75% max pulse rate. (Check with your doctor). I supplement that with about 10 minutes of various stretching exercises. It’s marvelous for continued self-deception.

  4. Jane Scerbo

    Thank you for your very timely and important article on exercise for the elderly. I’ll be 80 this year and it has been exercise — 3 mile daily brisk walks, often after work — that has strengthened me mentally and physically. However, I have osteoporosis (especially in the spine). I have been seeking, without success, to find additional bone strengthening exercises to help me. I recently went to one of the best metabolic bone disease centers in NYC and was offered only drugs — no exercise or nutrition advice.

    I will be downloading your valuable resource. Hopefully, I will learn much and will incorporate it in my daily routine. Thank you again and keep writing for this excellent blog.

  5. Helen Klieger

    I totally agree with your theory and proven fact on how important consistent exercise is for seniors. I have been happily working out for several years and am in pretty decent shape. I was so very excited to learn about Silver Sneakers (paid for memberships at many gyms and YMCA’s) through advantage plans and supplemental insurance to Medicare. I was able to drop my lifetime membership to the gym/Y and sign up for Silver Sneakers. Both my husband and I exercised 3-4 times per week for the past year. Today I learned that my membership to Silver Sneakers has not been renewed. Upon questioning Cigna Health Spring as to why their answer was” in your renewal packet there was a note indicating that we are dropping Silver Sneaker on many plans”. I received my renewal packet after renewal time. I indicated to the Cigna rep that I read in your article about how beneficial exercise was explaining your concepts. Her reply was ” if you need that you might want to have your primary order Physical Therapy For you”. I was appalled! They would rather pay huge dollars for PT than a $40.00 monthly membership to the Y. I do not need PT. I am in incredible shape. I need a gym. I will pay for the gym it is that important to me, but I am angry that Cigna Health Spring made me drop my lifetime already paid for membership in order to get Silver Sneakers. Then at yearly renewal time they dropped Silver Sneaker from my plan. Please be aware of your insurance plans annual renewal and verbally contact them to double check their promised health benefits.

  6. Leonard Revet

    I have been down this road many times. I started a running program in 1979 @ the age 47. In 1986 I had an MI while trying to complete a bi-Athlon, was lucky to survive. I tried to train to run a marathon following Dr. Cooper’s book on running. I could not get past 40 mpw w/o getting sick. I switched to walking in 1998 and continued until 2009 when it was found that I had sever “heart disease”. I went into the recovery exercise program about 2 weeks after the by-pass and was found to have arrhythmia. I had a procedure to fix that and etc. When I get checked out on a treadmill I am found to be in good shape but have found that every time I try to start back up with any type of exercise I over due it. I am also diabetic. After having a stint put in my rt descending artery I did a stress test and got to level 4 and a hr of 112. My resting hr is 60 controlled with a PM as I otherwise drop down to around 30. I live in rural Alaska, want to continue with an exercise program but feel it would be wrong to do so if I will kill myself. I also have had spinal meningitis 3 times, each time ending up in a coma.