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Exercise for Home Bodies

The experts who tell us we need more exercise agree on one thing. Doing something, they say, is better than doing nothing. And that's true even if you can't get out of the house to do it.

"Being active is about making sure you can keep doing the things you want to do," says Phyllis Croisant, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist in Charleston, Ill.

"You don't have to be sweaty or out of breath," she says. "If you're watching TV, just standing up and sitting back down three times while a commercial is on will strengthen your legs." That, in turn, she says, can help protect you against falls. It can also help ensure you'll be able to keep getting up from chairs without assistance.

"Any kind of physical activity is good," adds Tyson Bain. "It might be doing chores or just walking through the house from the front door to the back door a few times each day." Bain, a research associate in applied gerontology with the Cooper Institute in Dallas, specializes in exercise for older adults. "The guidelines are to try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. But you don't have to start there. Do what feels comfortable, even if that's only five or 10 minutes."

Listen to your body

Being active in your own house doesn't mean you need a lot of equipment. If you want to do strength exercises, you can use soup cans—but free weights are inexpensive and easy to find. You can use a regular chair to do exercises that strengthen your legs as you sit. Or, you can do stretching exercises using a chair for support. Just walking through your house from room to room will help build up your endurance. So will walking up and down the stairs.

"The important thing is to be realistic," says Basia Belza, Ph.D., R.N., an aging specialist in Seattle. "One mistake people make is trying to do too much at the beginning. That can result in injury. It can also lead to being discouraged because it's too hard to keep going."

Pain is a sign you may be doing too much, Dr. Belza says. "There shouldn't be any new pain. If you feel new pain, stop and check with someone. If you're doing the exercise wrong, you might be able to do it a different way."

Just as your body will tell you when you're doing too much, Dr. Belza says, it will also tell you if you are doing enough. These things tell you that you are getting the right amount of activity:

  • Being less out of breath

  • Feeling your mood improve

  • Having better balance

  • Being less fatigued

"It should start to get easier to do normal things like bathing or dressing yourself or bending down to put things away," Bain adds. Gradually, he says, your body will tell you that you want to do more.

Getting started

Before you start something new to raise your activity level, it's important to check with your health care provider. If you've been working with your provider for a while, you can call and explain over the phone what you want to do. "It's also a good idea to call so you can ask about what kinds of things you might do in your home," Dr. Belza says. "Providers often can make recommendations for activities that are safe and easy to follow."

"When you're just starting out," Dr. Croisant says, "think about the kinds of things you want to do. Then you can choose activities that will strengthen the muscles you need to do them." For instance, if what you want to do is be able to get up out of your chair more easily, you should choose activities that will strengthen your thigh muscles. If you want to be able to pick up your granddaughter and hug her, you'll want to choose activities that strengthen your arms.

Dr. Croisant also recommends you find a partner—a spouse, a neighbor, even a grandchild—to exercise with you. "When you have a partner, you'll both encourage one another," she says. "Plus you can socialize together."

Choosing what to do

Dr. Belza points out that you don't have to choose hard activities. "We're talking about adding physical activity that will make people more functional. You can even do that while sitting. For instance, you can raise your knees while sitting in a chair with your back straight. Or, you can hold your arms down at your side and curl them up toward your shoulder while you're sitting, with or without a can of soup in each hand."

Dr. Belza says it's sometimes helpful to ask your health care provider or your librarian to recommend a video. Videos can show you the right way to do simple exercises at home. The National Institute on Aging has developed an exercise guide for older adults, too. 

Whatever the reason you have to stay home, you don't have to neglect your body. Keeping it active will keep you active and help you feel good.