Healthy Aging Through Exercise

Marcina Zimmerman’s doctor can’t believe she’s 82 years old.

“It makes me laugh when he asks if I’m really 82…he should know!” chuckled Marcina, whose laughter is as infectious as her smile. “I guess I’ve just always been active. Got to keep moving!”

While not as outgoing as she once was due to lingering pain from a broken leg and fall a few years back, Marcina recently traded in her local gym membership for attending exercise classes at her independent living senior community.

“We have exercise three times a week here,” said Marcina. “I’m glad I can stay healthy and active.”

Boosting Body and Brain

Marcina’s teams of Methodist physicians attribute her good health, and the good health of seniors everywhere, to staying active and involved. Exercise is essential for everyone, but it becomes even more important as we age.

“The first thing I talk to people about is exercise,” said Rebecca Reilly, MD, medical director of the Methodist Hospital Geriatric Evaluation and Management (GEM) Clinic. “People want to remain independent and enjoy life as they age, and exercise is the single best thing to make that happen.”

As you age, you lose muscle mass, regardless of how strong you are. Working out slows that process.

Madonna Klein, PT, MPT

Being physically active helps seniors stay healthy by improving circulation, maintaining muscle mass and reinforcing bone strength. It may also be prescribed as therapy for some chronic illnesses, such as arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure and even dementia.

“Physical activity is so important because the second most common cause of memory loss, after Alzheimer’s disease, is vascular dementia, a circulatory problem,” said Abelardo Cruz, MD, internal medicine and geriatrics physician at the Methodist Hospital GEM Clinic. “You need to take care of your brain in the same way you care for your heart and other bodily organs: by making sure it gets adequate blood flow. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is one way to keep your brain healthy.”

Exercise Is Essential

Exercise also provides seniors with their best defense against debilitating falls. A single fall can change a senior’s life dramatically, even leading to possible death. Statistics show 20 to 30 percent of Americans 65 or older who fracture a hip will die within 12 months. Many more will experience significant functional loss.

“Hip fractures are particularly devastating,” said Dr. Reilly. “If you fall and break your hip, you have a major chance of not being able to return to your home.”

“As you age, you lose muscle mass, regardless of how strong you are,” said Madonna Klein, PT, MPT, clinical coordinator of outpatient therapy at Methodist Hospital. “Working out slows that process. In order to maintain your strength, you have to do some sort of exercise.”

So what sort of exercise should seniors pack into their day? Practicing Tai Chi, taking the stairs or even going for a 15-minute walk are good boosters for both body and brain.

Just ask Marcina. Exercise helped her bounce back not only from her fall injury, but also from a knee replacement. Living in a senior community, she sees the effects exercise has not only on her own life, but in her friends as well.

“I’ve got some friends who sit around and don’t exercise, and I think they struggle more,” said Marcina. “I feel I do better when I stay busy and active. I like to be busy.”