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What is the Best Exercise for Older Adults?

As a professional Personal Trainer who trains older and elder adults in the Minneapolis area, I often get asked “What is the best exercise for older adults?”

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My answer to any “what is the best exercise” question, no matter what your age or ability, is… “It depends.” What goals are you trying to accomplish? Best exercise for doing what? Improving balance, strength, cardiovascular fitness, weight loss, flexibility? Different types of exercises do different things. For example, walking helps to improve cardiovascular fitness, but does little to improve overall strength. Resistance training with elastic bands may help improve strength to some degree, but doesn’t really improve cardiovascular fitness. Traditionally, exercise programs for older adults typically required multiple modes of activity to see improvement in all areas of fitness: balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. So, is there a feasible, low cost activity that most older adults can do that would provide multiple benefits? Yep. I recently came across a study in the peer reviewed Journal of Sports Science and Medicine that compared Nordic walking to conventional walking or resistance training with elastic bands to determine if a single activity could improve all four areas of concern.

This particular 12 week study divided sedentary older adults who were at least 60 years of age into one of four groups: a Nordic walking group, a conventional walking group, a resistance training group, and a a control group. Nordic walking is simply walking with poles that are used to push against the ground with each stride for the purpose of activating muscles in the upper body while walking. It is thought to aid in maintaining upright posture and requires more energy expenditure compared to conventional walking simply because the upper body is more active. Both of the walking groups trained three non-consecutive days per week for an hour each time (warm-up 10-15 minutes, main exercise 30-40 minutes, cool down 10-15 minutes). The resistance training group participated in a supervised strength training program using elastic bands on two non-consecutive days each week. The control group did nothing and remained sedentary. Each participant did the Rikli Jones assessment for older adults before and after the study to measure objective data for strength, flexibility, and balance, and a 12 minute walk test to measure aerobic capacity. So, how did they do?

All three of the active groups improved their functional fitness over the 12 week study period, but the Nordic walking group appeared to show the most improvement overall. Upper body strength improved the most in the resistance training group, though the Nordic walking group also improved more than the conventional walking and control groups. Aerobic fitness improved similarly between both of the walking groups although the Nordic walkers exercised at a lower intensity. There was minimal aerobic improvement in the resistance training group. All three of the active groups improved their flexibility. None of the groups improved their balance scores.

So, what does it all mean? Basically, you still need multiple modes of exercise to address every area of concern, especially balance. And keep in mind, strength and flexibility are important for balance – just not enough all by themselves. None of the participants scored lower in balance tests after the exercise intervention. Many older adults are still capable of doing higher intensity resistance training circuit workouts than the folks that participated in this study, and they will get different results. But for sedentary older adults like those in this study, Nordic walking seems to provide more bang for the buck than conventional walking or only doing resistance training with elastic bands.

If you’d like to know where you stand on standardized fitness tests for older adults, give me a call and we can do a Rikli Jones assessment on you so that you know what your specific strengths and weaknesses are. If you’re not assessing, you’re just guessing.  Once we know where you stand, I can give you specific guidelines to determine the best exercise for you. You can start today!

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