Top 10 Myths About Seniors and Exercise

Seniors in a chair exercise class

Our ideas about senior living and healthy aging have changed mightily over the past few generations! Gone are the days when older adults were expected to take to their rocking chairs.

But many older adults today still harbor old beliefs that could prevent them from taking advantage of the many benefits of remaining physically active. Well-intentioned family members, too, might present a bit of an impediment with a nervous chorus of  "Be careful, Mom — you'd better sit down!"

Check out these 10 common misconceptions that could keep seniors from reaping the many benefits of exercise:

Myth #1: "I’m 75 years old and have never exercised—it's too late to start."
Fact: It's true that a lifetime of physical activity raises our chances of being healthy when we're older. But experts assure us that seniors who have led a sedentary lifestyle can benefit from beginning a regular program of fitness activities, even if they start at age 65, 70, 80 or older.

Myth #2: "Heart health is the only benefit of exercise."
Fact: We've been told for a long time that exercise is good for our hearts — but research continues to show that's just the beginning! Leading an active lifestyle slows physical decline. It protects our lungs, muscles, bones and joints. It reduces stress and boosts our immune system. It helps us delay or manage many common health conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease and depression. It helps us maintain a healthy weight. And it even reduces the risk of some cancers.

Myth #3: "Working puzzles is the best brain exercise."
Fact: When it comes to brain health, "use it or lose it" is certainly true. Mentally stimulating activities such as reading, music, crafts, puzzles and spending time with others all build connections in the brain that protect our thinking and memory. Yet experts say that exercising our bodies is most likely the top factor in maintaining brain health. "Good for the heart = good for the brain" is a motto to remember.

Myth #4: "Going for a brisk walk every day pretty much covers my exercise needs."
Fact: Walking is a great way to exercise. But it's only, we might say, the first step. A complete exercise program for seniors should include aerobic activities (those that make the heart pump faster, such as brisk walking, swimming, dancing or aerobics-type classes); muscle strengthening activities, such as lifting weights or using a resistance band; flexibility exercises such as stretches or yoga; and exercises that improve our sense of balance, such as tai chi. Remember that formal exercise isn't the only beneficial activity. Gardening, dancing, active video games, sports, and even house cleaning all provide some exercise.

Myth #5: "I exercise for half an hour each day, so it's OK to be a couch potato the rest of the time."
Fact: Experts once believed that was true. But recent studies show that even if we get the recommended amount of exercise every day, our health can suffer if we sit down the rest of the time. Get up every few hours to move around. Change your habits to incorporate more movement: lift weights while you watch TV, move around while talking on the phone, or meet a friend for a stroll rather than sitting in chairs.

Myth #6: "Avoiding activity is the best way to prevent falling."
Fact: The truth is, inactivity actually increases the risk of falling. Here's how it works: you experience a fall. Fear of falling causes you to reduce your level of activity. This reduces your reserve of energy, muscle tone and alertness ... which makes it more likely that you will fall. Avoid this dangerous cycle by asking your healthcare provider about a fall prevention exercise plan that's right for you. If you use a cane, walker or other mobility aid, be sure it is properly fitted and that you've been trained in its use.

Woman in wheelchair exercising with aide

Myth #7: "If I have arthritis or osteoporosis, I should exercise only sparingly."
Fact: This is another old belief that did the seniors of yesteryear a real disservice. We now know that exercise is one of the best ways to build strong bones and protect the joints. Exercise increases our muscle mass, which reduces pain and improves function. It helps seniors with osteoporosis avoid debilitating fractures. (Certain activities may be unsafe for seniors with osteoporosis, arthritis or other chronic health conditions, so be sure to ask the doctor for a "prescription" for a safe, effective exercise program.)

Myth #8: "It's not safe for people with Alzheimer's disease to exercise."
Fact: When a loved one has Alzheimer's disease or a related condition, their exercise routine may need to be modified to keep them safe. But physical activity is of great benefit to people with memory loss. It reduces pain, improves sleep, increases the appetite, and decreases agitation and wandering. It may even slow the progression of the disease. Ask your loved one's doctor about exercise classes for people with dementia. And if you're a caregiver, try exercising with your loved one — it could do you both good.

Myth #9: "I'm not fit enough to attend an exercise class!"
Fact: Exercising at home is fine, but working out with others can be much more motivating. Luckily, our nation's senior services agencies have taken notice that exercise not only keeps seniors healthy, but also saves our healthcare system a lot of money. So you will find exercise classes for seniors of every fitness level — including those who have never exercised before. There are modified exercise classes for people with disabilities, obesity and sensory loss. You can find a class through health clubs, senior living communities and through your community's senior services department.

Myth #10: "I've had the same exercise routine for years, and I don't need to change it."
Fact: Congratulations on your years of diligence! Yes, this may well be an "if it's not broken, don't fix it" situation. On the other hand, our fitness needs can change as we grow older, depending on our health conditions. Some activities may no longer be safe; we might need to switch to low-impact, or lower-intensity or otherwise modified exercise. And we might not be covering all the bases to achieve a complete fitness routine. Just as you'd have your doctor review your medications, get an exercise review as well!

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge