Question from: 11/17/97

"Does exercise influence flexibility in the elderly?"

by Christine M. Booras, B.A., LMT, CPFT

Answer: The short answer is a definite "YES"!

Studies have shown that one of every three persons 65 or older suffers a fall each year. Two of every five admissions to nursing homes are the result of falls, and they are the sixth leading cause of death for persons over 70. The injuries range from minor cuts and bruises to disabling broken bones. A fall or fear of a fall is often one of the factors leading to the decision to move in to a retirement or assisted living facility, where help is available 24 hours a day.

Loss of mobility, balance and stability are the main contributing factors leading to a fall. By keeping one's muscles strong and flexible, the chances of having a fall (much less a fatal one) are significantly less.

Exercise, basically anything that tunes our hearts, muscles and other body parts, is like a potion that helps to keep us young. Researchers at University of California at Berkeley suggest one main reason that active people usually look and feel so much better than others is that their hearts are better able to pump blood throughout their bodies, nourishing each cell with oxygen. Their muscles defy gravity and remain taut and strong which makes us feel good. It also helps us to feel "socially fit" because we can participate in activities with others.

Researchers at University of Wisconsin Medical School offer the following statistics:

In essence, our hearts don't function as efficiently, our ability to take in and use oxygen to promote bodily processes declines, our bodies become stiffer and less flexible, and muscle strength slips away.

But, this does not have to be one's absolute fate as we grow older. Proper nutrition, stress reduction and exercise help keep "Father Time" from taking a firm hold on us!

Fitness really has a lot to do with our capacity to draw in the amount of oxygen we need to work easily, which normally declines with age. But an older person who exercises regularly can achieve the maximum oxygen intake of a person 15 years younger. In a sense, the more active we are, the younger we become.

Fitness is defined as a combination of flexibility, strength, endurance and cardiovascular health. As we age, flexibility is the key that unlocks all of the other components. If you can get your body to move, you can put the other fitness pieces in place. Like in a car, lubricated parts move more easily than non-lubricated parts.

Exercise will improve the movement, or range of motion, in one's joints. Why? Because the cartilage inside a joint has only one way of getting nourishment - from the fluid that surrounds the joint. And the only way that fluid can get inside is through exercise.

When it comes to what types of exercise are best for the elderly, it will really depend on one's current medical condition and physical limitations. Most soft tissue problems and conditions, such as arthritis, aching joints and tight muscles, will definitely receive benefit from movement.

The best types of exercises to start off with are low -impact. Some favorites are:

Tai Chi is now being offered extensively as an alternative form of exercise for those individuals not interested, or able, to participate in high impact exercise programs. Tai Chi is a beautiful martial art created over 300 years ago. The exercise (movements) are performed with slow, controlled motions and complete concentration. Focusing on balancing the body, mind and spirit, Tai Chi is now being utilized to effectively reduce stress, promote internal peace and help in preventing disease.

There have now been many studies conducted suggesting that Tai Chi helps in preventing disease. We now know that stress causes many diseases.

One stress-related disease is high blood pressure, which often leads to hearts attacks and strokes. Another is arthritis, which affects some 40 million Americans. Physicians are now advising patient to exercise rather than "bed rest" for such diseases. Tai Chi provides a low-impact workout, ideal for older exercisers. The Times Union newspaper had an article printed in June of 1997 on osteoporosis which included the statement, "Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta found that Tai Chi…could reduce the number of falls by almost half".

In conclusion, exercise and flexibility are important for people of all ages and it is never too late to start. Our bodies have been naturally designed for and gifted with movement. Therefore, if we continue to follow nature, our bodies in turn will be a wonderful vehicle to carry us on throughout life. And as the old saying goes:

"It's better to wear out than to rust out."

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