Osteoporosis is responsible for 2 million fractures annually. The good news is that exercise can increase bone density in some older individuals. The precise amount and type of exercise necessary to achieve benefit is unknown, but encouragingly, research shows that weight lifting, and even just walking, can increase bone density in the hip and spine. The reason for this may be that weight lifting causes stress on the bones as the muscles contract (which causes the bones to thicken), and walking also causes stress on the bones, which stimulates them to grow.
One of the important conclusions of the research is that it's important to select balance-training exercises that are specific to activities you are likely to do during the day. For instance, you might want to do balance exercises on one leg that mimic the act of walking if you are unsteady while you walk (when you walk, one leg is in the air). Tai chi is excellent for this because it involves slow, coordinated movements, and is particularly beneficial for balance since you lift one leg frequently while doing it. (See also the balance exercises at the end of this article.)
In two different studies—one of men 50-70 years of age who lifted weights three times a week for 16 weeks, and the other of women 40-70 years of age who lifted twice a week for one year, bone density in the leg and back was shown to increase. There is also some evidence that walking can increase bone density in the hips and lower back, but the recommendation for frequency and intensity of the walking is not clear. What is clear is that exercise does help build or preserve bone density, and so it is recommended that we stay active for the sake of our bones and overall health.
The process of building muscle takes time, but the benefits are enormous for your health as a senior. Strength training requires good form to reap full benefit. Start with some basic, low-impact exercises: You can promote lower body strength by squatting in front of a sturdy chair. Keep your arms in front of you and be sure not to extend your knees past your toes as you bend to an almost-sitting position. Hold the position for a few moments, then raise yourself back to a standing position, take a breather, and repeat for two sets of 10 reps. Hold onto the sides of the chair or place a few pillows on the chair if the exercise is too challenging.
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