With our average life expectancy increasing, our ability to enjoy an active and independent lifestyle into our later years will depend upon how well we maintain our personal fitness levels. As we age, it is increasingly important to pay attention to our physical condition so we will be able to do the things we want to do, without pain, for as long as possible.
Functional fitness is defined as having the physical ability to perform normal, everyday activities safely and independently without undue fatigue. As we age, we want to have the strength, endurance, flexibility and mobility so we can take care of our own personal and household needs, participate in social and recreational events, and other activities of our choosing. Having functional mobility will allow you to continue to do the things you want and need to do to day strong, active and independent.
Functional mobility consists of five factors:
Muscular Strength (Upper and Lower Body)
This should be a major concern for older adults, since muscular strength declines at a rate of 15-20% each decade after the age of 50. This can have devastating effects on an individual’s ability to perform normal everyday activities. Lower body strength is imperative for climbing stairs, walking distances and getting out of a chair or bathtub, while upper body strength is required for carrying groceries, picking up grandchildren or pets, lifting items, doing housework, etc. 26% of people over the age of 70 couldn’t climb one set of stairs without needing to stop; 31% had difficulty lifting 10 pounds (a baby or a bag of groceries); and 36% had trouble walking several blocks. (Stump, Ckarn Johnson, and Wolinsky, 1997)
An adequate level of aerobic endurance – the ability to sustain large-muscle activity over time – is necessary to perform many everyday activities, such as walking, shopping, sight-seeing while on vacation, and participating in recreational or sports activities. It is the measure of how much work or bodies can handle and how much energy we feel, which are related to how much oxygen we can take in and use. Aerobic capacity tends to decline at a rate of 5-15% each decade after the age of 30, resulting in a loss of up to 50% by the age of 70. The solution to this is regular exercise, which can increase muscle endurance. (Jackson et al., 2009; Paterson and Warburton, 2010)
Loss of flexibility impairs most functions that are needed for proper mobility, including bending, stopping, lifting, reaching, walking and stair climbing. Maintaining lower-body flexibility, especially in the hip joints and hamstrings, is important because this also plays a role in preventing low-back pain, musculoskeletal injuries and gait abnormalities. For the upper body, adequate range of motion is required to comb one’s hair, pull up a zipper in the back of clothing, put on or removing over-the-head garments, reach for a seatbelt, or remove a wallet from a back pocket. (Holland, Tanaka, Shigematsu, and Nakagaichi, 2002),(Brown and Rose, 2005)
Agility & Dynamic Balance
Agility is the movement of the body to quickly change direction, while dynamic balance is the maintenance of postural stability while moving. Both are required to complete quick manoeuvres such as moving out of the way of a speeding car or a falling object, or getting up quickly to answer the phone, go to the bathroom, or attend to something in the kitchen.
Around the age of 30, people begin gaining weight at an average rate of one pound (0.5 kg) per year until around age 50 (for men) and around age 60 (for women), after which there is usually a weight stabilization for a few years, followed by a gradual decline. Unfortunately, the decline in weight is not the result of fat loss, but the loss of lean body tissue – muscle mass and bone. Studies indicate that because of excess body fat, people who are overweight are more likely to be disabled in later years than people with a normal body mass; alternatively, people with a very low weight can be at increased risk for health and mobility problems, possibly due to an associated loss in muscle mass and/or bone tissue. (Bouchard, Belieaff, Dionne & Brochu, 2007; Sternfeld, Ngo, Satariano, & Tager, 2002), ( Arnold, Newman, Cushman, Ding, & Kritchevsky, 2010; Losonczy et al., 1995)
Statistics suggest that most older adults do not get the required amount of exercise, and 42% of those over the age of 65 experience functional limitations in common, everyday activities. (U.S. Federal Interagency Forum an Aging-Related Statistics, 2010) Very few jobs held by older adults or household activities provide enough energy expenditure to meet proper physical activity requirements. Think about pushing a button for the elevator instead of taking the stairs; pushing a button to open the garage door, rolling the garbage can to the curb instead of carrying it, and driving through the automatic car wash, instead of washing the vehicle yourself. These all contribute little to our physical strength, health and functional mobility. Because of their sedentary lifestyles, many older adults are functioning dangerously close to their maximum ability when performing normal activities of daily living. For example, climbing stairs or getting out of a chair often requires near-maximum efforts for older people who are not physically active. This is why proper exercise and fitness testing are so important for adults in their later years.
Senior Fitness Tests
There are a number of tests that can measure the physical capacity of older adults, called Senior Fitness Tests. Studies suggest that physical function is preserved at a much higher level for those who are active and physically fit, and that improvements are possible at any age. With the rapid growth of the older population, and 5% of that population considered highly fit (elite level) and 30% considered frail, it is important to find ways to extend active life expectancy while reducing disability. Senior Fitness Tests can assess the physical capability of older adults.
Fitness testing for older adults requires minimal equipment, is easy to administer, and measures five different abilities:
- Lower Body Functioning – Leg strength, balance, and walking speed.
- Upper & Lower Body Strength
- Aerobic Endurance
- Upper & Lower Body Flexibility
- Agility & Dynamic Balance
The measurements are compared against other adults at the same age, using percentile norms and criterion-referenced fitness standards. They measure the ability of the person to a set standard, such as how far the individual can walk in a six-minute time period, as opposed to how long it takes to walk a specific distance.
How Much Activity Do You Need to Do?
The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines (2011), provides excellent overviews of the benefits of exercise for older adults.
- At least 150 minutes (2.5 hrs) of moderate-level or 75 minutes (1.25 hrs) of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise spread over at least 5 days of the week
- Work up to 300 minutes (5 hrs) or perform 150 minutes (2.5 hrs) of vigorous-intensity activity spread throughout the week, especially if the goal is weight reduction.
- Muscle-strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups – legs, hips, back, core, chest, shoulder and arms performed at least 2 days a week
- Balance exercises as needed
- Flexibility – stretching should be done 7 days a week
Let’s Talk Intensity!
Moderate-intensity physical activities will cause older adults to sweat a little and to breathe harder.
- Brisk walking • Bicycling
Vigorous-intensity physical activities will cause older adults to sweat and be ‘out of breath’.
• Cross-country skiing • Swimming
It doesn’t have to be much… Just start and build from there. Anyone can get better than they are at any age. I am there to help if you need it.