In the first part of this series, we discussed the difference between physical activity and exercise. Let’s get more in-depth. There are four types of exercise and activity that will provide the greatest benefit:
These are the exercises that are often the highest intensity. Good thing you don’t need to do a whole lot of it! Resistance training uses your own body weight or an additional weight to stimulate your muscles to grow in size and strength.
If there was one type of exercise I’d ask someone to do, strength training would be it (though I would hope never to have to pick just one!). This is because strength training helps limit the loss of muscle mass and strength that starts occurring around age 30 and that occurs much more rapidly after about the age of 50. Maintaining muscle mass and strength means that you’ll also maintain your ability to complete day to day tasks with fewer potential problems, and will be better able to handle health hurdle and injuries that might come your way.
Exercises like squats, seated rows, and chest press or pushups are all excellent examples of strength training exercises, because they use large muscles and multiple joints, so you get the most bang-for-buck. Other strength training exercises like calf raises or bicep curls are also valuable, though involve slightly less muscle.
Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise
Cardiovascular (or aerobic) exercise helps build both muscular endurance, so you can spend more time doing things you enjoy (gardening, walking) before getting tired, and improves the strength and endurance of your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.
Cardiovascular exercise – what we’re doing when we walk, run, swim, dance, do the yardwork – helps our bodies in two ways. It builds muscular endurance in our large muscle groups that are used to create movement, and it builds strength and endurance in our cardiovascular and respiratory systems, meaning that it strengthens our heart (remember it’s a muscle!) and the muscles we use to breathe, as well as creating a stronger delivery system for oxygen and nutrients to our working muscles.
Plus, there is a significant and growing body of research showing that the repeated, rhythmic movements inherent to cardiovascular exercise are calming and relaxing. Not only does this relieve stress, but it can help alleviate anxiety and the symptoms of depression. Yay for improving physical and mental health at the same time.
Good balance depends in part on muscular strength and the reflexes and reaction time of the nervous system. Since balance is a key component in preventing falls, it’s increasing important to work to maintain good balance as we age.
Though other types of exercise are helpful in maintaining good balance, specific exercises are as simple as putting yourself in a position where your balance is slightly or moderately challenged (but that is still safe), and letting your body figure out how to adjust for the slight instability. This can be as low-tech as standing on one foot with a hand on a wall for some stability help (to make it more challenging, try closing your eyes). Another great option is tai chi, a form exercise that slow, continuous movement and emphasizes body alignment shifting your body weight in a controlled manner. Often spoken of as “meditation in movement”, tai chi is also a great break for your brain.
Though not “exercise” in the traditional sense, flexibility exercises are nonetheless an important part of maintaining movement ability and quality of life. Losing flexibility means losing the ability to move to the same degree that you did when you were young.
Most people think of flexibility and static stretching (the traditional stretch-and-hold) as the same thing, and to some degree this is true. Static flexibility tells us the about the range of motion available at a given joint. However, in day to day life, we should take dynamic flexibility into greater consideration.
Dynamic flexibility considers both the range of motion available at the joint, and takes into account any resistance to the stretch that might be caused by muscle tension or any other resistance to the movement. In many ways, this is real-life flexibility. Consider trying to reach a jar down from a tall shelf. As you stretch to reach it, your body is contracting muscles to help stabilize you and to complete the movement. Your flexibility in this action will be much different than your flexibility if you were sitting somewhere relaxed and supported.
Despite these differences, any flexibility exercise is worth doing. All age groups appear to respond to flexibility training, and this is key to maintaining your ability to move well, helping to maintain quality of life and independent living. There are many types of stretching, and most seem to provide roughly the same level of benefit, though to maximize your results from flexibility exercises, you should be looking for the line between a comfortable stretch and slight discomfort. Finding stretches that take you to (but not over) this slight discomfort line while still keeping you in a safe and supported position will be your best bet.
So whats the bottom line?
As always, the most effective exercise is the exercise you’re willing to do! The benefits provided by each typoe of exercise have a lot of overlap, though you’ll certainly get a more even spread of these benefits by including some of each of the above. Remember to stay safe, listen to your body, and work to find exercises that are challenging but achievable, and you’ll go farther than you might expect!
Carter, N. D., P. Kannus, *K. M. Khan. “Exercise in the prevention of falls in older people: A systematic literature review examining the rationale and the evidence”. Sports Medicine. 31(6):427-438 (2001).
Claxton, D. B., M. S. Wiggins, F. M. Moode &R. Crist. “A Question of Balance”. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. 77(3):32-37 (2006).
Keller, K.& M. Engelhardt. “Strength and muscle mass loss with aging process. Age and strength loss”. Muscles Ligaments Tendons Journal. 3(4):346–350 (2013).
Plowman, S. A. & D. L. Smith. Exercise Physiology For Health, Fitness, And Performance. 4th ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2014.