Why Exercise?

Structured physical activity or exercise is a popular pursuit amongst older persons and can be of considerable benefit given the physical declines associated with ageing. The following section is intended to provide accurate, practical information regarding the adoption and continuation of physical activity and its importance to older persons.

The Ageing Body

As we age, a great number of structural and functional transformations occur leading to a decline in “optimal” physical capacity. While our level of activity affects some of these changes, others bear little relationship to the quantity of exercise performed. Age-related changes in skin composition (texture, etc.), vision, hair colour, hearing, etc. take place irrespective of an individual’s level of physical fitness.

However, other factors such as breathing capacity, heart function, muscle strength, etc. are heavily influenced by one’s level of fitness.

The Body’s Response to Exercise

The human body generally responds well to physical exercise and substantial improvements may be anticipated in heart and lung function, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and one’s ability to respond to stimulii.

Some of the more noticeable changes to exercise may include:

Increased bone strength;

Increased physical work capacity (one’s ability to perform physical work);

Increased joint range of motion or flexibility;

Improved sense of well being;

Increased muscular strength;

Improved glucose regulation (very favourable for diabetics);

Decreased blood pressure;

Improved sleep patterns and levels of anxiety.

Indeed, exercise can have a profound effect upon older persons with the most “unfit” usually experiencing the greatest benefits.

The Exercise Program

When prescribing exercise, health professionals will usually talk about 3 important factors, namely: intensity, duration and frequency.


The intensity of exercise refers to the amount of effort put into an exercise. Intensity is usually measured by assessing the heart rate during exercise. As a general rule, the intensity of exercise should not exceed certain limits. If monitoring heart rate use the simple equation – 200 minus your age (in years) to estimate the working heart rate you should remain under.

Of course ‘listening to your own body’ can be just as important and reliable in determining whether or not you are exercising at a sufficient intensity. Accordingly, a feeling of mild fatigue should be your aim immediately following a bout of exercise.


The duration of exercise refers to the actual time spent performing an activity. It is generally accepted that to improve cardiorespiratory or “heart” fitness you should aim to achieve 30 minutes of exercise on most (if not all) days of the week. However, recent studies have shown that favourable “health” benefits can be achieved from as little as 5 minutes continuous exercise, repeated several times per day.


The frequency of exercise refers to the number of occasions per week that activity should be undertaken. The accepted frequency, in order to achieve cardiorespiratory or “heart” fitness is 3 to 5 sessions per week. However, positive benefits have been shown to occur from as little as 2 sessions per week.

The most important element of exercise prescription is the notion that activity should become a “life-long” habit and not merely a passing “fad”.

Practical Advice

There are certain things you should be aware of before commencing any program of physical activity. General advice includes the following:

Contact should be made with your Physiotherapist prior to commencing a program.

Set short term goals rather than long term aims;

Take account of existing conditions and choose an appropriate activity that you will enjoy;

Try to exercise in a group setting and walk in safe areas with a partner, if possible;

Ease steadily into an exercise program by beginning with low intensity, low frequency activity and proceed slowly;

Postpone your exercise if you have a temporary illness or when the weather is extremely hot or humid;

Set aside a specific time of the day to do your exercise;

Start a regular routine by exercising every other day;

Stop exercising and consult your Doctor if any of the following occur: nausea, dizziness, breathlessness, tightness in the chest or persistent muscle soreness.

Avoid any exercise that hurts. Movements should be gentle and comfortable.

Avoid exercises such as deep knee bends and rapid or vigorous turning of the head and neck.

Observe the adage “No gain when in pain”

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