Tips on how seniors can stay active in the stormy season

The deep-water aqua fit class at the YMCA in Victoria, B.C., is packed. The music starts and the instructor enthusiastically guides us through a warm-up of jogging and jumping jacks. After the interval, we swim to the edge of the pool to catch our breath.


One man, who greets many of the regulars by name, says he likes the combination of community building, cardio and calorie burning. Another woman says she’s new to the class and decided to try it because her evening walking group goes on hiatus when the days get shorter.


Indeed, when the sun sets before dinner and the stormy season begins in B.C., many outdoor activities fall by the wayside. But that doesn’t mean that your exercise regime has to suffer.


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November is Seniors’ Fall Prevention Awareness Month in B.C., and the time has never been better to try a safe, low-impact workout such as aqua fit. Regular activity builds strength, improves balance and flexibility, and helps prevent falls. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines provide information on activities and intensity levels for seniors of all levels of mobility, including activities that maintain bone health, enhance balance and range from moderate brisk walking to sweat-inducing cross-country skiing.


“Exercises that focus on muscle strength and improving balance have been shown to reduce one’s actual risk of falls by 35 to 50 per cent,” says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. “Exercise doesn’t have to involve going to the gym and really being pushed. It is something that you can incorporate into your daily life.”


Liu-Ambrose, who is also the director of research and operations at the Falls Prevention Clinic at the Vancouver General Hospital, points out that people can easily exercise in their own homes when the weather isn’t inviting. She suggests simple exercises, such as working your leg muscles by getting up and down from a dining room chair, or working on balance by standing at the kitchen sink on one leg for upward of 10 seconds. “Those exercises are really appropriate for older adults and a good place to start,” she says.

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There are many video and web-based programs available depending on your level of fitness and ability. DoYogaWithMe offers hundreds of online yoga classes for people of all levels, the SAIL Home Activity Program features videos of guided exercises that can be done in the living room and the Move for Life is a DVD that includes activities for viewers with limited mobility so they can stretch and move safely. This also encourages older adults to add more physical activities to their daily routine.


Many rec centres and YMCA locations across B.C. offer the Choose to Move program. In this free program, participants work with a certified activity coach on a personalized physical activity plan based on their interests, goals, ability, and income. They can connect with other Choose to Move participants through monthly meetings and telephone check-ins. They can choose their activity by making use of organized physical activity programs or building on individual interests such as walking, hiking, and swimming.


Due in part to the aging of Canada’s population and the proportion of older adults aged 65 and over, the number of fall-related hospitalizations is projected to increase across the country with one in three seniors ending up in the hospital due to falls each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

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Even more concerning, PHAC reports, is that the number of deaths due to falls increased by 65 per cent from 2003 to 2008 with continued increases expected in the coming years.  Research shows that falls can also have a negative effect on an individual’s mental health, leading to isolation, depression and fear of falling again.


A number of factors put seniors at risk of falls, including health conditions, balance difficulties, social isolation and the environment in which they live. However, participating in activities tailored to seniors can help mitigate the risk of falls while building confidence and social connectedness.


Recreation and community centres offer a variety of group fitness classes for seniors, from yoga and pilates to boot camp for boomers. The Osteofit program is also available across the province and is designed to reduce the risk of falls among older adults with low bone mass. Even in the fall and winter, there are plenty of programs, such as tai chi and Nordic walking, that take seniors outside when the weather is agreeable. Being in nature is invigorating and adds an extra boost to one’s mood.


“Having social connectivity within your peer group or community is really critical for our overall senior healthy aging,” says Liu-Ambrose. “It also helps with maintaining cognition, which plays a huge role in reducing one’s risk of falls.”

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Liu-Ambrose explains that when you’re carrying on a conversation, for example, you are thinking, processing information and coming up with interesting things to say. This is good mental exercise that can help prepare you to make good decisions to avoid falls or react quickly and recover from a near-fall. “Part of that ability to recover your balance relies on your brain to process the information and give you the appropriate response,” she says.


Most adults aged 65 and older do not get the recommended minimum 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, however there are many ways to accomplish that. Liu-Ambrose stresses finding something you enjoy and starting out slowly. “Any activity is better than no activity,” she says. “Even if you walk one more block than you typically are doing, that’s a win.”


If you’re looking for ideas, and a fun challenge, check out the ParticipACTION 150 Play List, which invites Canadians to try as many of the 150 crowd-sourced activities as possible. But try not to get too competitive. “You have to make goals that are appropriate for you and work slowly from there and not compare yourself to someone else,” says Liu-Ambrose. “It’s not a competition. You have to be patient, but persistent.”

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