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Physical and Mental Well-being for Older Adults

Written by Brittni Peterson, RN
Resource Nurse, Empira

When it comes to setting goals, never say never. With an outstanding time of just under four hours, Harriette Thompson became the oldest woman to run a half marathon in 2017. Can you guess her age when she crossed over that finish line? 94. People tend to believe the older we become, the more fragile our body becomes… but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Exercise for older adults is just as important as exercise is for children, adolescents, teens and adults. There is no doubt that the older we get the more our body starts to have aches and pains, which may make it more difficult to get up and get moving. However, according to the Better Health Channel, regular exercise may help decrease some of those aches and pains by strengthening the bones and muscles in our body. Individuals over the age of 65-years-old should spend approximately 20 minutes/day on aerobic exercise or 10 minutes/day anaerobic exercises.

Aerobic vs. anaerobic

The word aerobic means “with oxygen”. The amount of oxygen intake, while performing an aerobic exercise is adequate enough to fuel the physical activity. Running, brisk walking, cycling, or swimming are all examples of aerobic exercise. Your body is burning the carbohydrates and fats that are stored in your body to fuel your muscles while increasing your heart rate and breathing. Since your body is slowly burning the carbs and fats, aerobic can be done for a long time (like a marathon) because energy is slowly being released and the demand for oxygen is not high.

The word anaerobic means “without oxygen”. For this type of exercise, regular oxygen supply is not adequate enough to fuel the activity, so the body needs to rely on other means of fuel like carbohydrates, amino acids and lactate. Anaerobic exercise cannot be done for a long time because of the limited supply of energy. Some examples of anaerobic exercise are weight lifting, sprints and box jumps.

Benefits of physical exercise for aging adults

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017, approximately 3 million older adults were seen in the emergency department due to injuries that were sustained from a fall and more than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling. When we become older, our bone density decreases, as well as, our muscle mass. How can we change that? Simple. Exercise.

Weight bearing exercises, like walking or lifting weights, helps to improve balance by strengthen your bones and increasing your muscle mass. This will help decrease falls and bone fractures by providing your body with strength and stability. Exercise will also benefit your joints by keeping them in regular use. Physical activity can also help improve the function of your heart and lungs. Aerobic exercises help to strengthen your heart which will help decrease your risk for illnesses like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Let’s do an overview on the benefits of exercise.

  • Improves our mood and sleep while reducing stress and anxiety by releasing those feel good chemicals.
  • Increases stability and balance by strengthening our bones and increasing muscle mass.
  • Improves our health and lowers our risk for diseases like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes by strengthening our heart and lowering bad cholesterol.
  • Decreases joint pain by regularly moving and keeping them from stiffening
  • Improves brain function by reducing inflammation and extending the existence of new brain cells.

Is physical activity the only type of activity we need?

When we think of exercise we typically only think about how it helps our bones, muscle, heart, and lungs… but what about our most essential muscle, the brain? Just like any muscle in our body, the brain can lose its muscle tone, making it more susceptible to memory loss and decreased cognitive function. This may make it difficult to independently perform activities of daily living that mean that most to you, upholding conversations and can even make it more difficult to learn new skills.

Author Heidi Godman, writes that exercise helps the brain directly by reducing inflammation and promoting growth of new brain cells, blood vessels in the brain and extending the survival of new brain cells. Exercise helps the brain indirectly by improving mood, sleep and by decreasing episodes of anxiety and stress. When we get our body moving and increase our heart rate, our brain releases good chemicals known as endorphins and serotonin.

Here are some inexpensive ways to exercise your brain:

  • Word games help improve word association and memory recall.
  • Board games integrate problem solving skills and create opportunities for socialization.
  • Jigsaw puzzles incorporate fine motor skills.
  • Crafts promote autonomy for creativeness while combining fine motor skills.
  • Cooking utilizes critical thinking and helps improve memory (recipes) while encouraging creativeness.
  • Gardening stimulates the brain with planning and provides sun exposure, a great source of vitamin D.

Integrating meaningful activities in nursing communities

An F-number, called a tag number (F-tag), corresponds to a specific regulation within the Code of Federal Regulations that governs long term care facilities. F-tag 248 states that ”the facility must provide for an ongoing program of activities designed to meet, in accordance with the comprehensive assessment, the interests and the physical, mental, and psycho-social well-being of each resident.” This F-tag is overseen by federal regulations with the hope of providing residents with activities that fit their individualized interest to provide them with purpose and increase their overall well-being. There is even a federal regulation that emphasizes the importance of both physical and mental activities for residents.

How do we know which activities will spark interest in residents? I’m glad you asked. Empira’s fourth signature program, ResoLute, helps by supporting “residents and loved ones as they embrace the process of aging with purpose, determination and an unwavering commitment to uphold what matters most in the late stages of life.” Supporting the resident is done with meaningful conversations to determine what matters most to them. By asking those important questions, we can begin to plan focused activities around their personal goals. Purposeful living has already been linked to other aspects of well-being, like a longer life, lower risk of disease, better sleep and healthier behavior.

I’m not saying everyone has to be like Harriette and run a marathon to live a purposeful life, but if you can find what sparks your resident’s joy, you will make their world a better place to be.

References:
Better Health Channel. (2020). Physical activity for seniors. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/physical-activity-for-seniors

Boren, C. (2017, June 4). At 94, Harriette Thompson becomes the oldest woman to run a half-marathon.

In The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/06/04/now-94-harriette-thompson-is-trying-to-become-the-oldest-woman-to-run-a-half-marathon/

Cirillo, A. (2019, June 24). Nursing homes and assisted living activities. In Nursing Homes. https://www.verywellhealth.com/nursing-home-and-assisted-living-activities-197763

Empira. (2020). Our signature approaches. http://empira.org/programs/our-programs

Godman, H. (2018, April 5). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. In

Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110

MacMillan, A. (2017, August 16). People age better if they have a purpose in life. In Time. https://time.com/4903166/purpose-in-life-aging/

Sun Health Communities. (2016, July 7). 7 exercises for older adults.
https://www.sunhealthcommunities.org/resource-center/articles/7-brain-exercises-older-adults/

World Health Organization. (2020). Physical activity and older adults. In Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health. https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_olderadults/en/

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