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Denver cyclist Amy Shronstrom, 62, proved that age doesn't have to be a limiting factor when she biked 3,000 miles across America to raise money for obesity and autism research. Fitness programs can be started at any time in life. Staying physically active helps combat obesity, reduces your risk of heart or lung disease, maintains muscle strength and increases flexibility in your joints. Although most seniors won't become long-distance cyclists, even implementing a gentle exercise program into your 60s, 70s and beyond can significantly impact your health and your lifespan.
Seniors can increase strength and endurance by performing simple, low-impact aerobic exercises, including grocery shopping, climbing stairs and vacuuming the house. Building endurance not only improves your breathing and heart rate but also enhances the health of your lungs, heart and circulatory system, giving you the stamina needed to perform ordinary, daily tasks well into old age. Start with 10-minute daily sessions of gentle aerobic exercises, such as walking or swimming. Aim to build up to 30-minute sessions five or six times a week.
As you age, muscle mass tends to decrease. But the good news is that even gentle weight-training exercises can create significant changes in muscle size and strength. These changes may be all you need to maintain your ability to do simple tasks, such as carrying the laundry or rising from a chair. You can start with 1 -pound to 2-pound hand and ankle weights, socks filled with dry beans, canned vegetables or no weights at all, then gradually add weight over time. The National Institute on Aging recommends eight to 15 repetitions of simple arm raises, biceps curls and knee extensions. Take three seconds to slowly push up, hold for one second and gradually lower the weight for a count of three. If you can't execute eight repetitions, then the weight is too heavy for you.
In addition to muscle mass, aging leads to reduced flexibility in your joints and muscles. To help keep you body limber, maintain full range of motion, prevent falls and other joint or muscle injuries, try gentle stretching exercises after your endurance and strength exercises. Dr. Karl Knopf, author of "Stretching for 50+," suggests mimicking a windmill with your arms, doing ankle circles and performing basic shoulder rolls. For a hamstring stretch, hold the back of a chair with both hands. Bend forward from your hips until your upper body is parallel to the floor. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Try to do three to five of each flexibility stretch.
In 2009, more than 581,000 Americans older than age 65 were hospitalized for injuries related to falls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, falls rank as the leading cause of injury deaths among older adults. Basic stability exercises can help avoid injuries while improving balance. While holding on to a table with two hands, try eight to 15 repetitions of standing on your toes, raising one knee or lifting one leg to the side. Over time as your balance improves, hold the table with one hand, then just fingertips, then no hands. Because strength-training exercises also are balance exercises, you can accomplish two fitness goals simply by doing exercises for strength.
Even a gentle fitness program requires warm-up and cool-down exercises. Easy walking, walking in place or simply pumping your arms can do the trick. Don't hold your breath while exercising as this can elevate blood pressure. If you've had a hip replacement, consult your doctor before performing lower-body exercises. In fact, as with any fitness program, ask your physician if you have any restrictions before implementing a gentle exercise routine.
Perform simple stretching exercises after your gentle exercise workout. Once your muscles are warmed up, you can hold on to a chair or exercise buddy and attempt to touch your toes or perform neck rolls. Do not bounce or jerk into a stretch. Instead, make slow, gradual movements. You may feel some discomfort while stretching, but if pain occurs, stop immediately.