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For Seniors: Avoid Injury When You Exercise

Staying active—getting regular exercise—is one of the best ways to minimize the effects of aging. Exercise helps prevent chronic illness and loss of function in older adults, according to the American Geriatrics Society (AGS).

But exercise should yield benefits without strain. The benefit of exercise comes from moving, not from pushing so hard it hurts, says Rick Kellerman, M.D., a family medicine specialist in Wichita, Kan. Pain is a sign you are overdoing it.

"You can expect minor muscle aches," Dr. Kellerman says. "But if they persist, you should back off. Severe joint pain says something is seriously wrong."

Exercise basics

Exercise is any physical activity that uses energy to move muscles, the AGS says. A well-rounded fitness program includes aerobic, stretching, and strength exercises.

Aerobic exercise keeps your heart and lungs healthy. You should do 30 to 45 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise most days of the week. Moderate exercise pushes your heart rate to 55 to 70 percent of its maximum. You can determine your maximum heart rate by first subtracting your age from 220. Then, multiply this result by 0.55 and 0.7 to find out your heart rate at a moderate level of exercise.

Stretching exercises keep your joints flexible. You should do stretching exercises just about every day. Strength-training exercises use weight machines or free weights to boost muscle strength. Do strength-training exercises two to three times a week, taking a day off between workouts. Stronger muscles and flexible joints improve your balance and help you avoid falls.

Age not a factor

Dr. Kellerman says that age should not be a limiting factor for exercise. Complications that come with aging can be, however. For instance, one important concern is balance. "As we age," he says, "our eyesight and other senses often aren't as good as they used to be. So it's important to pay attention to the environment and what's going on to avoid falls. Dizziness or a sense of lightheadedness is a warning sign."

Another important concern, he says, is your heart. "Warning signs that something's wrong include chest pain or pressure," he says. "With any chest pain, stop immediately and have it checked. Other signs something may be wrong include an upset stomach or shortness of breath that doesn't seem right for the level of exertion."

It's important to talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program. "And don't just ask if it's OK to exercise," says Josie Gardiner, a spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "One thing I always ask people I work with is, 'What does your doctor not want you to do?' " Another important consideration, she adds, is what effects your medications might have. For instance, if you take a diuretic for blood pressure, you may need to watch for dehydration.

Patience is essential

Being safe involves being patient, says Richard Cotton, an ACE spokesman. "It's very important to start with less than what you consider you are able to do," says Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for Myexerciseplan.com. "That may mean starting with just a five- to 10-minute walk on level ground. The ego may not like it, but the body will. Our heart and lungs can adapt quickly, but bones and muscle take longer."  Cotton says we all have an inner voice that wants to push us. "But if it pushes too hard, it can lead to injury."

Cotton adds that any increase in the exercise level should be gradual, or no more than 10 percent per session. "That means if you walked 20 minutes yesterday, add no more than two minutes to your walk today," he says.

There are clear indications you are exercising the right way. "First," Cotton says, "you should be able to talk with someone while you are exercising. Also, if you're doing it right, you'll start to feel more energized throughout the day. Plus, things you've done in the past, you'll be able to do more easily. For instance, you may find you're not winded after going up a flight of stairs."

"One of the main reasons people exercise later in life," Dr. Kellerman says, "is to help themselves stay independent. Setting reasonable goals and using common sense to keep yourself safe will help make that happen."