Persistent inflammation is bad for both the body and the brain at any age, but it’s especially harmful to older adults. Unfortunately, “inflammageing” – or chronic inflammation in aging – affects the majority of seniors and is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, depression, muscle loss and more. Fortunately, plenty can be done to help lower your loved one’s chronic inflammatory response—and exercise is right at the top of that list.
“If you research the benefits of exercise, it comes up as being a benefit for just about every chronic disease except long COVID-19,” Joy Fletcher, CPT WITS, told Seasons. “Alzheimer’s, dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer–you name it, exercise helps.”
Fighting inflammation with inflammation
While you’re probably wondering which exercises are best for lowering inflammation in seniors, the answer isn’t so simple.
“It’s not so much about a type but a duration and an intensity. Inflammation is a complex little deal,” Fletcher said. “The object of the training is to train hard enough to achieve a little muscle breakdown, to stress the muscle enough that it will rebuild.”
However, that rebuilding process is more complex for older adults. Essentially, exercise causes acute inflammation in the targeted muscles, but it then lowers chronic inflammation through a variety of processes as the body responds and rebuilds. Seniors experience a slower recovery response due to a number of factors. Lower levels of elastin and collagen result in weaker connective tissues, which slows the healing process. As the neuromuscular system gets weaker, that process wanes as well, and their immune systems take longer to get to work repairing broken down muscle fibers. Plus, they have fewer of those fibers and, usually, a lower overall volume of muscle to start with.
Listening to the body
Fletcher cautions seniors to be careful not to overdo it.
“They should train just enough to feel that they got a workout,” she said.
So, while the CDC recommends that seniors get 2.5 hours of exercise per week, there are caveats to consider. Strains and sprains can have bigger and longer consequences as people age, and pushing through can lead to more harm than good. So, it’s important to start out slow and stop when the body has had enough.
“One of the biggest things I tell all of my people is to listen to your body,” she said. “If it aches or is tired, listen. People say ‘Just work through the pain,’ but you can’t do that when you’re a senior.”
“Research shows that you can build muscles at 95 the same as at 25,” Fletcher mused, “but where do you start a 95-year-old at?”
She noted that many people don’t start exercising until they retire, which presents its own set of challenges. Seniors who wait until their golden years to work out may already be experiencing some of the consequences of chronic inflammation, such as heart disease and diabetes. They will also experience more soreness and have a harder time getting the same benefits as their more active peers at first. But it can still be done!
In order for exercise to be effective at fighting inflammation in older adults, it must be done regularly. And for this to happen, Fletcher explained, “It’s got to be enjoyable and within their capabilities to start and keep up.”
“They don’t have to just walk the same path and be bored.”
In fact, for many people a brisk walk might not be the best choice to begin with.
“A lot of people say, ‘Just get out and walk; that’s the easiest.’ But walking with arthritis is not pleasurable.” She encourages caregivers to look at where their senior is at and go from there. That might mean doing something that’s easy on the joints to strengthen muscles around the joint, which will relieve pain and increase abilities.
Fletcher noted that there are options for almost everyone—no matter what level of fitness they are at. She has even trained people in wheelchairs.
“Most people can still move something.”
Classes could be the best option
Developing an exercise program for the senior in your life can be challenging.
“It’s kind of a tricky thing,” Fletcher said. “Most of the time doctors can’t even be helpful because they know so little about seniors and exercise.”
She encourages older adults to take age-appropriate classes. Fitness classes geared for seniors can be found at senior centers, fitness clubs and online. AARP offers a wide range of exercise and wellness classes. Fletcher, who is a senior fitness consultant and corrective exercise specialist, teaches online classes aimed at older adults with varying fitness needs.
Age-appropriate classes also offer an additional benefit to exercise: social interaction. That camaraderie can help in the fight against Alzheimer’s and dementia, which Fletcher noted are higher among those who don’t get enough social interaction. Even online classes can offer seniors a sense of closeness and solidarity with their peers.
Finally, don’t give up if your first attempt to get your loved one moving falls flat, she said.
“Caregivers need to have the patience to try something new.”