exercise older people

Why exercise is important for older people – now more than ever

Older Australians are the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s important for older people to exercise regularly, but there are also increased challenges for this population. 

Many restrictions have been put in place by the Australian government to control the spread of COVID-19. Older people are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impact of COVID-19 including high risk of fatality. Self-isolation, physical distancing, and restricted access to aged care facilities are some of most common measures that have been put in place to minimise exposure to COVID-19.

The Australian Government has advised that older Australians stay at home unless it is for essential purposes like food shopping, medical appointments and exercise. The implications of physical distancing and associated restrictions due to COVID-19 can have negative consequences on older people’s health include loneliness, social isolation, physical deconditioning, and mental health deterioration.

Physical activity has many health benefits for older people, including supporting the immune system and reducing the risk of illness, reducing the risk of chronic diseases and improving their physical health. Physical activity also has great benefits to our mental health particularly in difficult times like in the current pandemic. Older people can gain substantial health benefits by becoming physically active even if they have not exercised before. Importantly, remaining physically active can maintain their physical function and independence.

Barriers older people currently face during the pandemic to stay active

While various social platforms are being used by many people to connect with each other, older people may not have the skills or access to these platforms. Lack of knowledge or skills in using internet and smartphones, as well as lack of internet access, might pose barriers in accessing online information and resources. Managing health problems can also be challenging especially with the current lockdown restrictions.  The ongoing messaging from the government around the risk for older people due to COVID-19 can also create fear and stress. It is therefore important to provide support and reassurance to older people of what they can still do and access during this time.

Despite the restrictions currently in place, there is still a lot you can do at home. Remember, you can also still go outside to exercise while practicing the recommended physical distancing.

older adult exercise

General tips and exercises you can do at home

The national recommendations suggest older people should do physical activity of at least 30 minutes every day. Try to aim for that if you can and remember to incorporate different types of exercises. These should include exercises that target your cardiorespiratory system such as walking, exercises that target muscle strengthening and exercises that target balance.

If you have medical conditions that affect your balance or mobility, or are unsure of what you can do, please discuss it with a health professional. Although you may not be able to visit your health professional, you can use telehealth (use of digital information and communication technologies, such as computers and mobile devices) to access health care and exercise services remotely to manage your health.

Use free resources – There are various resources available that offer examples of exercises and online workouts, find what you like and build that into your day so you have a structure and routine to follow.

Start slow – Start at a level that is easy for you and gradually build up. Do whatever you can, every little bit counts.

Sit less – Minimise the amount of time spent in prolonged sitting. Try breaking up long periods of sitting as often as possible with some movements and incidental activities (unstructured activity such as housework and activities of daily living).

Dance more – Dance and move to your favourite music. Using music is a great way to make us feel happy and motivate us to move. Combining exercise with music is also known to produce more positive effects on brain function in older people than exercise alone.

Walking – Go for a walk, by yourself, with a pet or with a family member. You can exercise with one other person (while practicing the recommended 1.5-2m physical distancing)..

Be creative – Use furniture available to you at home (bench, chair, and stairs) to perform daily tasks such as sit to stand, squats, going up and down stairs and lunge. You can use your body weight as a load and can also add cans/bottle of water or any other groceries as weights.

Find balance – Balance is very important to train as it can reduce the risk of falls. Simple exercises such as marching on spot (lifting your knees up high if you can), heel to toe walk, walking on toes can be done often during the day. Please make sure you do it near a walk so you can steady yourself if needed.

older adults exercising

Safety tips

Stop the exercise if you experience chest pain or shortness of breath. Please speak with a health professional if you are experiencing more than mild pain or discomfort following exercise or any other concerns you might have.

Balance exercises should be performed close to a wall or a steady chair to allow support if needed.

To make your outdoor walk safe please be mindful of the walking path to avoid terrains and uneven footpaths.

If you have balance and walking problems or have had falls in the past, it is important to discuss with a health professional the best type of exercise suited for your needs and how to set up the exercise at home to maximise safety.

Some people may have musculoskeletal problems (e.g., joint pain, arthritis), however this should not prevent them from being physically active. In fact, exercise is recommended for the management of arthritis and can improve pain. It is not uncommon to experience mild pain during exercise and in most instances, pain will settle over time.

If you’re not sure where to start, you have a chronic condition or injury, or you just want to know what exercises are safe for your individual needs, ask for help! You can find an accredited exercise professional near you by clicking here.

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Written by Associate Professor Pazit Levinger and Prof Keith Hill

Associate Professor Pazit Levinger, Senior Researcher, Accredited Exercise Physiologist, National Ageing Research Institute, Melbourne Australia.

Professor Keith Hill (Physiotherapist), Director, Rehabilitation, Ageing and Independent Living (RAIL) Research Centre, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia