At age 18, I learned something that turned out to be the greatest gift as I get older. I remember feeling embarrassed when I failed to run a mile in under 15 minutes as part of a fitness screening for college freshmen. As a consequence, I had to enroll in a basic fitness improvement program with prescribed exercises. And what I discovered was that exercise, rather than depleting me, actually gave me energy, making the grind of college more manageable. Thus a lifelong commitment to exercising regularly was born. Now 40 some years later, besides the energy advantage that exercise brings, research confirms the benefits of exercise related to aging: it protects from falls; it reduces the risk of chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease; and it lowers the risk of depression.

For older adults who want to stay healthy and independent, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends four types of exercises to improve strength, balance, flexibility and endurance.

Strength exercises build muscles and increase metabolism, which helps keep your weight and blood sugar in check. While we do lose muscle as we age, exercise can partially restore strength and flexibility. Strength training builds up muscle with repetitive motion using weight or external resistance from body weight, machines, free weights, or resistance bands which are designed to give your muscles a good workout when stretched and pulled. Strength training helps prevent loss of bone mass and improves balance—both important in staying active and avoiding falls.

Afraid of falling? Balance exercises build leg muscles, helping to prevent falls. If you are an older adult, check out yoga, Tai Chi and posture exercises to gain confidence with balance.

Flexibility exercises challenge the ability of your body’s joints to move freely through a full range of motion. Yoga is an excellent means of improving flexibility. Stretching exercises can give you more freedom of movement, which will allow you to be more active in general for ordinary physical activities such as looking behind you while driving.

Endurance exercises are any activity that increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period of time, such as brisk walking, stair climbing, swimming, hiking, cycling, rowing, tennis, and dancing. Endurance exercises help lessen fatigue and promotes independence by improving stamina for daily activities such as house cleaning and yard work.

Even if you are frail or chair-bound, you can still experience the mood-boosting effects of exercise. Chair-bound adults can improve fitness with strength training, flexibility, and even some cardio activities. If being chair-bound has prevented you from trying exercise in the past, trust that when you become more physically active, the results will amaze you. Like any exercise program, a chair-bound fitness routine takes a little creativity and personalization to keep it effective.

For strength, use free weights (“dumbbells”) to do repetitive sets of lifting. Don’t have weights? Use anything that is weighted and fits in your hand, like soup cans. For resistance, use resistance bands for pull-downs, shoulder rotations, and arm and leg extensions.

Flexibility can be gained by slowly stretching, bending, and twisting, improving your range of motion. Some of these exercises can also be done lying down. Ask your doctor or search online for chair-yoga possibilities. Endurance can be achieved with pool-therapy programs designed for the wheelchair–bound. Also, wheelchair-training machines make arm-bicycling and rowing possible. If you lack access to special machines or pools, repetitive movements (like rapid leg lifts or sitting pushups) work just as well to raise your heart rate.

It is never too late to start an exercise program, although you should check with your health provider if you have not been active and want to start a vigorous exercise routine. But for most of us, just walking 30 minutes a day is a good start. If you are someone who needs encouragement, look for an exercise or dance class offered through community education, stillwater.k12.mn.us/community-education, or at Community Thread.

When it comes to improving health and longevity, exercise is key. Get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week. It could turn out to be the best investment you can make in aging well. I still can’t run a mile very fast but you won’t catch me falling down.

By Sally Anderson