There has been growing awareness of the importance of exercise, social community and purpose for mental and physical health. This is true for all people, but is particularly important for older adults to cope with the many changes, losses and trials that they have faced throughout life. Some communities are structured to help seniors with such types of established activities, while others still need to be developed. There are many transitions and unique challenges seniors go through in the later years. With steadily improving medical care and healthy lifestyle education, people are living longer. As a result, seniors comprise a larger percentage of the total population. Families, communities and care facilities are working towards finding the most optimal services to provide for this group. Seniors benefit from exercise, social community, and purposefully helping others, with positive effects seen physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
PHYSICAL CHANGES AND EMOTIONAL CHALLENGES
Kravitz (2007) explains how aging brings a whole host of physiological changes that are exacerbated by sedentary lifestyles. By the age 65, the function of the cardiovascular system decreases by 20-30%. Women absorb 5% less oxygen per decade and men absorb 9% less oxygen per decade. Blood vessels lose their flexibility, raising blood pressure. Each decade maximum heart rate decreases roughly 10 beats per minute. By age 70 a person’s full lung capacity decreases 40-50%. Muscle mass decreases by 40% and strength by 30%. Typically, people can build muscle up into their 30s, it plateaus in the 40s and 50s, and then rapidly declines after that. Decreased strength affects the lower body more than the upper body. Bone mass decreases by 1% per year after age 35. Brain mass, nerves, and neurons decline by 15% percent by age 60. Cholesterol overall increases while good cholesterol decreases. Levels of oxygen and red blood cells decrease in blood. Lastly, gradually with aging, people lose some functionality of various senses, like touch, smell, balance, hearing, thirst, and sight (Kravtiz, 2007).
Suttie (2014) states that physical changes are not the only challenges seniors face. They also lose beloved friends and family throughout life. Such loses can be excruciatingly painful and can contribute to loneliness. Failures, regrets, and relational disagreements can also result in persistent negative thoughts. It is important to help seniors maintain the best possible levels of physical, social/emotional, and mental health. There is significant variation in the types of families, neighborhoods, and care facilities that try to provide for some of these needs. Some are more successful than others, influenced by factors like neighborhood safety and income. “More and more studies are discovering how senior communities can be designed to maximize sharing, friendship, health, and happiness in our later years” (Suttie, 2014, p. 2).
EXERCISE: DOUBLE GOOD
According to the University of Minnesota (2016), exercise is the most well-known lifestyle change protecting against anxiety and depression for all ages. Exercise produces endorphins and serotonin, chemicals in the brain that help to improve mood. Regular exercise can give people a sense of accomplishment, boost self-esteem, help people feel empowered, and strengthen relationships (University of Minnesota, 2016). Bailey (2018) writes in agreement that many studies have shown that physical activity increases happiness. This has been proven for multiple groups of people, including cancer survivors, teenagers, seniors, adults, children with cerebral palsy, people who are overweight, and people of normal weight (Bailey, 2018). Exercise is doubly beneficial in providing those social/emotional protective factors as well as working against some of the physical changes seniors experience written in the previous paragraph.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (2008) explains how exercise helps with some of the physiological changes that come with aging. Exercise helps with posture, balance, strength, flexibility, and endurance. Exercise can help bone density because mild, repeated stress on bones aids them in maintaining shape and calcium levels. Joints are similarly benefited with regular use, like a natural lubricating system that prevents excessive aching and stiffness. Exercise can reduce the risk of falling by improving posture and balance. Exercise also increases the duration of possible independent living by helping people to move and function autonomously (The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2008).
Kravitz (2010) stated that an inclusive exercise regime consists of multiple parts that should reach a minimum of 150 minutes per week. It should include aerobic activity that works out the heart and lungs, like walking, bicycling or jogging. There should be weight training, also called resistance training, like pushups, crunches, squats, and lifting weights. These can be done with free weights or on various machines. Do not forget to include stretching and range of motion to keep muscles and joints in good working condition. Lastly, work on balance and relaxation techniques, such as tai chi or yoga classes. With the physical changes older adults experience, some may be uncomfortable in beginning regular exercise at workout centers. It is important to establish healthy rapport and communication, to assist them in finding a type of exercise that they enjoy that is comfortable for them. It may help to create a small group so that they do not feel alone (Kravitz, 2010).
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (2008) goes on to explain that it is important to keep safety cautions in mind and use common sense. If sick, refrain from exercising until fully recovered and then resume exercise gradually. Notice if many people are in the fitness center, because there could be decreased levels of oxygen in the air. It may be wise for some to schedule exercise at times when there are fewer people exercising. Simply walking through malls may be beneficial because it is mentally engaging, potentially interactive, and does not depend on the weather (The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2008). People should not push beyond their capacity, but have proper aids nearby for safety, such as balance grips and proper support or spotters when lifting weights. Use caution and select appropriate exercises to safely meet individual needs.
SOCIAL INTERACTIONS: DOUBLE GOOD
Kravitz (2010) recorded the results of multiple studies that looked at “successful aging” (p. 6). Many have focused solely on the physical. One study, however, showed that people who exercise, refrain from smoking, and engage in social volunteer work, had increased emotional well-being. Exercise can help not only physically, but is twice as beneficial when combined with social networks (Kravitz, 2010). The University of Minnesota (2016) also gave social support as a protective factor against depression and anxiety. Having a good social support system with positive relationships protects against isolation and loneliness (The University of Minnesota, 2016).
Suttie (2014) recorded that Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, said that people “aren’t meant to be disengaged from one another.” A twelve year study on 1100 people with dementia showed that regularly having many social interactions slowed down the effects of dementia by 70%. Seniors with frequent social interactions were also able to live independently longer than those who were isolated. One study showed that people who had more social connections were also more physically active. Relationships and activities often get people up out of the house and moving (Suttie, 2014). Seniors may have such types of relationships with family members, friends, or through their neighborhood or community. For example, some intergenerational families bake together. There are groups of seniors that bicycle together. There are assisted living centers built with playgrounds for children to come play where they can interact with seniors.
DANCE: TRIPLE GOOD
Dance is a well-known activity that combines the benefits of exercise and social interaction. Powers (2010) describes how dance has long been applauded for health benefits physically, and more recently, emotionally, by reducing stress and increasing serotonin levels, which positively impacts mood. And, the benefits do not stop there. A long-term study was conducted measuring how certain activities also affect mental acuity. Physical activities were studied, such as dance, housework, swimming, tennis, golf, walking and bicycling. Cognitive activities were studied like memory games, cross-word puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. The only physical activity that decreased chances of developing dementia was regular dancing. The results of the study showed that the following activities reduced the chances of developing dementia:
• Dancing- reduced the risk by 76%
• Reading- reducing the risk by 35%
• Crossword puzzles at least four days a week- reduced the risk by 47%
• Swimming, bicycling, and golf had no effect (Powers, 2010)
Powers (2010) went on to explain that researchers have tried to understand why dancing was so effective. Dancing is “kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional,” using a variety of neuronal pathways that are activated in the brain simultaneously (p. 4). Aging causes lost connections in the brain, beginning with people struggling with nouns, like names. However, neural pathways can constantly be rewired, but only as needed. The brain becomes stronger or sharper with regular use. It is similar to exercise in that regular practice makes the brain stronger. Intelligence and movement are interconnected, expressed in the choices people make. Jean Piaget defined intelligence as “what we use when we don’t already know what to do” (p. 4). The most beneficial dances are those that require split second decisions between a leader and a follower. The follower has to interpret the leader’s moves instantaneously. The leader can be intuitive to the types of moves that work well for the follower, adjusting movement accordingly. For effectiveness in maintaining mental acuity, all activities are better when done frequently and over time (Powers, 2010).
THE BENEFITS OF PURPOSEFULLY SERVING OTHERS
The University of Minnesota (2016) adds that having a sense of purpose or spirituality can also significantly improve mental health. People who have purpose can be better equipped to deal with the struggles and challenges faced throughout life. Purpose can be like a “psychological buffer against obstacles” (p. 4). The resilience this can build in people decreases anxiety, contributing to happiness. Spirituality can also help people to understand harsh realities, building endurance and acceptance. Suttie (2014) summarizes that being active in one’s community and having a sense of purpose are invaluable, decreasing depression rates, increasing optimism, and decreasing Alzheimer’s disease (Suttie, 2014).
An example of people being purposefully active in their communities, there is an organization in Minnesota called Vital Aging Network (VAN) that empowers seniors to become tools for social change in their communities. They get together and research the needs of seniors, coming up with ways to meet those needs. This organization fosters relationships and gives a sense of purpose in contributing to their community (Suttie, 2014). Such organizations could go beyond the needs of senior populations, even, to address the needs of the whole community. Research could be conducted with local government or schools to find needs that seniors could address, becoming agents of powerful, healthy change, in their neighborhoods or cities at large. There are groups that volunteer places like Pregnancy Resource Centers, helping young mothers. People can also volunteer in homeless shelters or in after-school programs.
Overall, the more active seniors are physically, mentally and socially, particularly in ways that use multiple thought processes and help others, the healthier they will be. Creativity may be needed to find the best fit for certain individuals as health and energy may be weaker, but that should not stop people. The possible activities are nearly endless. It first requires someone with organizational skills to get people together, brainstorming needs, interests, passions and ideas.
Then there must be proper follow-through that is also organized, to make the decided upon positive activities truly happen. With determination and cooperation to achieve goals such as these, step by step this world can become a place of laughter, joy and purpose for seniors and their communities.
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2008). Seniors and Exercise. Retrieved March 3, 2019
Bailey, L. (2018, April). Study suggests people should get moving to get happier. University of Michigan. Retrieved March 3, 2019
Kravitz, L. (2007). The Age Antidote. Idea Fitness Journal, 14(2), 28-35.Retrieved March 3, 2019
Kravitz, L. (2010). Senior fitness research roundup. IDEA Fitness Journal, 7(2), 30-37. Retrieved March 3, 2019
Powers, R. (2010, July). Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter, Longer. Retrieved March 3, 2019
Suttie, J. (2014, March). How Social Connections Keep Seniors Healthy. Retrieved March 3, 2019
University of Minnesota. (2016). What Lifestyle Changes are Recommended for Anxiety and Depression? Retrieved January 8, 2019