How physical therapists can help seniors increase activity for healthy aging
with advice from Randy Gustafson, PT, MPT, MOMT,
Cindy Powell, PT, MPT, ATC, STS
and Mika Yoshida, CSCS, EP-C
Aging isn’t fun for anyone. Your memory starts to fade, your body slows down and gains weight, and your joints start to stiffen. And while no one can reverse or stop the aging process, one of the best ways to reduce the speed at which your body is changing is to be more active.
“As the years go by, staying active becomes one of the key factors in staying independent, pain-free and feeling good,” says Randy Gustafson, a physical therapist and the owner of Physiquality member Mesa Physical Therapy in San Diego, California. Exercise is known to help prevent and reduce such problems as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, along with its more obvious benefits of increasing strength and reducing — or at least maintaining — weight. And, Randy points out, better health from increased activity often allows patients to reduce their reliance on some medications, allowing patients to take them less frequently or sometimes quit them altogether.
If you want to exercise more but haven’t done so in a while, walking is an easy activity to begin with. It’s low-impact and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attacks. It doesn’t require training or special equipment, just a good pair of shoes. And it’s easy to measure your progress with a pedometer, or even simply timing your walks.
Mika Yoshida, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, recommends the Arthritis Foundation’s Walk With Ease program as a way to measure progress. As a fitness instructor at the Take Charge Fitness Program at Clinton Physical Therapy Center, a Physiquality member in Clinton, Tennessee, she often works with patients who are uneasy about returning to exercise after an injury or chronic illness. The Walk With Ease program offers local groups, where patients can walk with others hoping to improve their health, and guidelines if people prefer to create their own program.
The goal of any walking program is to increase activity gradually, explains Mika. You can time how long or count how far you walked even if it was only 1 minute or 1 block. Once you can walk that length of time or distance comfortably, increase it. Mika recommends increasing your distance by around 1,000 steps (which is about ½ mile) and maintaining that distance for a week or two before trying to increase the distance again. Thankfully, you can measure these distances on a smartphone or pedometer to help plan your walking path; the Walk With Ease program also offers an app to help you set goals and measure your progress. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, 10,000 steps a day is a reasonable goal for most healthy adults, and 10,000 to 12,500 steps a day is considered active.
The ultimate goal is the guidelines advocated by the CDC, says Mika: 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity exercise, or an equivalent combination of the two. If you’re planning to do this by walking, that means you’d have to walk for 30 minutes 5 days a week. If you want to change the intensity, Mika suggests going jogging, climbing stairs or adding hills.
If you’re concerned about starting a walking program on your own because of an injury or lack of strength, some physical therapists have unweighting systems that allow you to walk supported while reducing the amount of weight on your joints. Cindy Powell, a physical therapist and the director of training and research for GlideTrak (a Physiquality partner vendor), explains that the goal is to reduce the amount of weight a person is supporting until pain-free exercise is achieved. It allows faster movement and leads to improvements in strength and balance that carry over into daily function and walking ability, especially for those with mobility challenges.
The system offered by GlideTrak includes a comfortable suspension harness for full unweighting, as well as several harness options for for shoulder support or full-body support, providing safety and stability so that a person may walk without fear of falling. The supports can be adapted as strength improves, eventually allowing a person to walk without the supports on a treadmill or level ground.
There are also lots of senior-specific exercise programs that consider the needs of older adults. At Mesa Physical Therapy, Randy and his staff offer an Active Senior program that caters to anyone 60 or older who wants to maintain his independence and quality of life, enhance his quality of life by reducing or eliminating pain, and avoid decline in physical health by strengthening and treating specific muscles or joints.
Tailored to each individual, the program starts with a comprehensive evaluation done by a physical therapist to assess musculoskeletal health and/or injury. This allows the team to create a personal plan of care that considers the person’s age, specific goals, current level of fitness and/or any medical conditions. The team also makes sure that each participant can improve her strength and balance at her own pace, reducing the risk of falls and further injury. The goal is for each participant to lead a more active and healthy life.
One of the biggest benefits of these structured senior programs is that the staff is trained to look for and respond to any signs of distress — if a person starts feeling dizzy, for example, the staff can help to figure out what is causing the problem. If you are on your own and start having trouble breathing, or if you experience chest pain or dizziness, says Randy, it’s time to take a break. If it continues, you should call your doctor to discuss how to adapt your exercise program.
After your workout, you should also pay attention to how your body feels; you don’t need to exercise until you are really sore in order to see results. Mika recommends following the “two-hour pain rule” set by the Arthritis Foundation. Essentially, if you are more sore two hours after you finished exercising compared to before you started, then you’ve overdone it. Also, she cautions, pay close attention if the pain is in the joints. You need to back off of the activity or reduce your intensity, so that you don’t cause an injury and further pain. And consult with your physical therapist to solve any ongoing pain issues; find the Physiquality location nearest you here.
||Randy Gustafson, PT, MPT, MOMT, is the owner and clinical director of Mesa Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member in San Diego, California. Randy’s clinic offers many specialized programs for wellness, pain management, hand and occupational therapy, and active seniors.
||Cindy Powell, PT, MPT, ATC, STS, is a physical therapist and the director of training and research for GlideTrak, a Physiquality partner vendor. Also certified as an athletic trainer and strength training specialist, Cindy has a passion for helping individuals achieve their goals for education, health, wellness and rehabilitation.
||Mika Yoshida, CSCS, EP-C, is a fitness instructor at the Take Charge Fitness Program at Clinton Physical Therapy Center, a Physiquality member in Clinton, Tennessee. Certified as both a strength and conditioning specialist and an exercise physiologist, Mika teaches a variety of classes covering Pilates, balance, strength and posture.
For further reading, look through our selection of articles on aging well, in addition to the below links:
How much physical activity do older adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 17, 2014.
Starting a walking program. American College of Sports Medicine, 2011.
Brisk walking reduces risk of heart attack in women. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, August 25, 1999.