How Can We Get Mom to Exercise?

Senior woman walking in the park with younger family members

A few weeks ago, the American Cancer Society released a study showing that prolonged sitting raises the risk of death from 14 different causes! According to the association’s Dr. Alpa V. Patel, this is the list:

Alzheimer’s disease
Cancer
COPD
Coronary heart disease
Diabetes
Kidney disease
Liver disease
Lung disease
Musculoskeletal disorders
Nervous disorders
Parkinson's disease
Peptic ulcer and other digestive diseases
Stroke
Suicide

Exercise offers many health benefits, no matter a person's age or condition. For older adults, exercise strengthens the heart and lungs, reduces the pain of arthritis, and helps manage many of the diseases in the list above. It helps seniors maintain a healthy weight and avoid depression, and can delay dementia and general decline.

Yet family caregivers say it can be notoriously difficult to get senior relatives to exercise. Older adults may be afraid of falling. Not having the energy they once did, they might give up because they can't keep up the pace they used to. They might be suffering from depression. Arthritis pain might create concern that using their joints is making things worse. All these challenges can lead to a cycle of decline.

But family support can make all the difference. Here are some ways family can encourage and assist their senior loved ones to up their activity level:

If your loved one agrees, come along to their next doctor's appointment and have a conversation about a safe exercise "prescription." Getting the green light from a medical professional can go a long way. Those of the oldest generation grew up during the "rocking chair era," when it was considered safest for seniors to avoid activity. The doctor can help dispel that outmoded notion.

Educate yourself about senior exercise and your loved one’s health conditions. The doctor, a physical therapist or other trained professional can recommend an exercise plan to improve your loved one's strength and muscle endurance. Exercise can be modified for health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, osteoporosis or heart problems. Learn the signs that might mean your loved one is overdoing it, such as shortness of breath, dizziness or chest pain.

Make it a family affair. Exercising with others is more motivating. So go for a walk or work out with an exercise video right alongside your loved one. Go at their pace. No, you likely aren't going to reach your own target heart rate on a walk with your 85-year-old dad, but when it comes to exercise, every little bit helps. And it's fun! Says one son, "When I visited Mom, we'd sit in the living room … sometimes we'd run out of things to talk about, and the kids would be bored. Now we all go for a walk or to the zoo. It's more enjoyable all around."

Locate senior exercise opportunities in your loved one's area. Organizations that serve older adults know how important physical activity is. Check out senior workouts at the local gym, senior center, or parks and recreation department. There are exercise opportunities for seniors of every ability, providing aerobic, muscle-strengthening and balance exercises in a nonjudgmental environment. Many adults enjoy chair exercise, water aerobics and tai chi.

Buy Mom or Dad a great workout outfit. Comfortable clothes and the right shoes make it much easier to be active. Look for some stylish options at your local sports apparel shop, or check out adaptive garments that allow for free movement and are easy to put on. ("The Right Clothes for Senior Independence" in an earlier issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter has lots of good suggestions.)

Break up exercise into smaller doses. Younger people are advised to take part in high-intensity exercise for the best results, but studies show older adults benefit almost as much from short periods of lighter-intensity exercise, such as gardening, dancing, walking and even household chores. Mom might like to try a fitness tracker to see if she's meeting the goal her doctor recommended.

Set up a home gym. If there's space and it's safe for your loved one, get exercise equipment such as a treadmill, stationary bike and weights. Your loved one can watch their favorite TV shows while they exercise, rather than hunker down on the couch eating junk food. There are exercise videos for seniors. And studies show that active video games can provide a good workout, as well.

For an extra measure of safety, have adaptive devices checked. If your loved one uses a walker, cane or other walking aid, be sure it is properly fitted, and that your loved one has been trained to use it correctly. Encourage your loved one to have regular eye exams, and if their eyeglasses have progressive lenses or bifocals, ask the doctor if a second pair of glasses with distance vision only would be safer for walking. Studies show hearing aids also reduce the risk of falls.

Caregiver encourages senior man to come outside

If your family uses in-home care, make activity a priority. Yes, you probably hired the professional caregiver to help your loved one with personal care, grooming, meal preparation and housekeeping — but consider that having a trained professional at hand also can build your loved one's confidence and motivation quite a bit! The caregiver can provide supervision during home exercises and help your loved one work out with a video — and don't forget that home care doesn't happen only at home! The caregiver can provide transportation to exercise class, or accompany your loved one on a stroll in the park, a trip to the beach, a mall walk, or anywhere else your loved one enjoys. If your loved one has memory loss, staying active is still so important, for their health and to lessen troubling symptoms such as agitation and sleep problems. And the benefits double when professional caregiving services free up your own time for exercise.

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Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.