By Michaela Gibson Morris
For seniors who want to add life to their years, a daily walk may be the best medicine out there.
“Just getting up and moving makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” said Laurie Otis, a physical therapist and geriatric clinical specialist with Gentiva home health and hospice. “The research shows the more they move, the more they enjoy life and gain health benefits.”
Seniors don’t have to go for miles to see health benefits from walking, said Otis, who made presentations in Fulton and Tupelo last week as part of a national Step On It! campaign. The campaign encourages older adults to make movement a priority and take common sense precautions to prevent falls.
“If we keep them up and moving, they’ll be less likely to fall,” Otis said.
Walking can help keep the body stronger and more limber, said Heather Thorn, an exercise specialist. It’s a weight-bearing exercise, so it strengthens bones.
“The stronger your bones are, the less likely you are to have a fracture,” Thorn said.
But when people get sedentary, the reverse can happen – they lose flexibility, balance, muscle strength.
“Everything that’s going to keep you mobile is going to decrease,” Thorn said.
Health advocates often emphasize walking because it’s accessible to almost everyone, but any kind of movement counts, including swimming, dancing or group classes. T’ai Chi Chih and gentle yoga classes are particularly good choices for those looking for low-impact exercise options to strengthen balance.
How much isn’t as important as making activity a priority and pushing yourself to make small, incremental steps.
“Don’t worry about comparisons,” said Thorn, who has seen folks who couldn’t walk for a minute on the treadmill more than quadruple their time with two weeks of effort. “Just the small things deliver big rewards.”
Aging is a fact of life. With it comes eyes that take longer to adjust to changes in light and dark. Reaction times slow. Balance erodes. Common sense measures can guard against falls and keep people moving.
The right shoes are essential, not only for comfort, but for reducing the risk of falls, Otis said.
Walking shoes should have good tread. They don’t have to lace up; they can be slip-on or Velcro, but they do need to be snug so they provide the proper support to foot and ankle.
Pay attention to how you walk, Thorn said. Avoid shuffling – which can increase the risk of tripping – and make sure the heel hits first.
It’s important to know your medications well and how they could affect the risk of falls, Otis said. For example, some medications can lower blood pressure; people taking those medicines may need to give themselves a few minutes to adjust after standing up before they take off walking.
Finding a walking buddy does double duty. Being accountable to another person helps keep your exercise routine going. If you run into trouble, there’s someone there to help.
Especially for someone who has been sedentary, it’s important to start slowly and follow any instructions from your health care team. Don’t shy away from walkers and canes if they’ve been recommended.
Tandem walking, using a counter or narrow hallway for support, can be a good way to rebuild stamina and gain confidence, Thorn said. Focus on putting the heel down in front of the toe to build balance back.
Walking in the water can also be a good way to mitigate joint pain and balance issues. The buoyancy takes the strain off joints. Just like walking on land, it requires the proper footwear – beach or water shoes with treaded bottoms to reduce the threat of slips.
“It would be a good way to start,” Thorn said.
• Before starting any exercise program, talk with your health care provider.
• Shoes with rubber-soled tread are the best choice.
• Make a plan. Consider the best places and times along with any adaptive equipment you may need.
• Find a walk buddy. You can help each other keep the routine going.
• Set little goals. Try to slowly increase the number of steps or minutes you walk.
• Make movement a priority every day.
STEP ON IT!
Gentiva home health and hospice staff are available to present the free Step On It! walking safety programs to senior groups around the region. Call Marla or Angela at (662) 844-9725.