Every day this winter, unless the weather is really awful, Roberta Calderone dons her cold weather gear and sets out on her 8,000-step walk. When there’s no risk of slippery terrain, the nearby wooded ravine beckons. More often, the 78-year old North York, Ont., resident opts for the wide, dry sidewalks of Avenue Road. Calderone moves at a steady quick clip and even faster when she’s accompanied by her 48-year-old daughter. Calderone’s husband, also 78, has arthritis in his knees and other chronic health problems but he tries to take a daily walk, too, albeit at a slower pace and with far less steps. The couple recognizes how important it is to keep moving, even in the cold and miserable months of February and March. Besides the physical benefits, Calderone says, “It clears my mind.”
For older people, including seniors with chronic conditions that may make exercising more challenging and uncomfortable, moving the body as much as possible is crucial for well-being and to avoid becoming frail. “The most important thing is to continue to engage in physical activity, to stay connected with friends and family and to have a balanced diet rich in protein, vitamin D and calcium,” says Dr. Annie Robitaille, research chair in frailty-informed care at the Centre of Excellence at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre in Ottawa. Frailty, explains Robitaille, is an age-related condition characterized by declines in energy, strength and function and increased vulnerability to disease, including dementia and heart disease.
Frail seniors, says Robitaille, are more likely to be hospitalized, to need long-term care and to have a higher risk of mortality. “It’s so important to work on maintaining strength, endurance and balance,” says Robitaille, especially “during the winter season, when it’s more difficult to go out and participate in normal activities because of the snow, ice and cold weather.’ And, she adds, “Older adults are staying at home more than usual this winter because of the pandemic.” The combination of winter weather and cancellation of exercise programs also means fewer opportunities to socialize.
“The social aspect and loneliness are also key factors that have an impact on frailty,” notes Robitaille. For people who don’t enjoy exercise or find that it hurts, Robitaille suggests having a buddy system with friends or family, exercising together virtually, even if only on a phone call. “Encouragement is one of the key factors,” she emphasizes, along with “finding what works for you.” She suggests finding a specific time, about 20 to 30 minutes a day if possible, and making it consistent over an extended period of time, building endurance, balance and strength.
“Doing things like balancing on one leg and walking in place helps reduce the risk and load of frailty,” advises Robitaille. Encouragement can also come from free online videos and apps. They range from very gentle tai chi practised for five minutes a day to a workout designed for Canadians that includes push-ups and scissor jumps. The Daily Caring site for caregivers offers three easy beginner tai chi videos available for free online for seniors to help improve balance and strength.
A free video with exercises for osteoarthritis of hip and knees by physician Andrea Furlan begins with her explanation of why exercise is important for people with OA. The exercises begin in bed before getting up in the morning. Beginner yoga is a popular and gentle way to move the body. A seven-minute yoga workout for older adults is free on YouTube. ParticipACTION is a free app designed to keep Canadians of all ages “sit less and move more by providing motivational tools, tips, instructional videos and an activity goal based on where you are in your journey.”
Some older Canadians may remember how popular the Royal Canadian Air Force 5BX Exercise Plan was when it was introduced in 1961 and available in booklet form. It’s said the RCAF 5BX, with its five basic exercises (hence 5BX), was responsible for kicking off the fitness movement 60 years ago. It’s still useful today for people exercising at home and offers a 10BX plan with 10 exercises that are easier but still involve hopping and getting down on the floor for modified push-ups. There’s a chart that includes a program with increasing endurance levels for people 50-plus. The U.S. National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging suggest the best exercises for older people, including the four types of recommended exercises: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility with safety tips in each category. Best of all, it counts carrying groceries as a form of strength exercise for seniors! The NIA YouTube channel has a dozen different free exercise videos, including some in each of the four categories for older adults.