In a nation obsessed with youth, fitness is equated with taut skin and a toned, well-muscled physique. Yet even the oldest and frailest adults, such as elderly residents of nursing homes, can gain significant health benefits — physically and mentally — from exercise.

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health, recent studies involving sedentary nursing home residents in their 80s and 90s have demonstrated the overwhelmingly positive results of regular exercise.

Those findings are even more compelling in light of additional research that has shown older adults can harm their health far more by not exercising. According to Golden Living, elderly patients often avoid doing the very things that could improve their health due to concerns over perceived fragility. The first step toward breaking the cycle of inactivity is usually to overcome this resistance.

Golden Living feels so strongly about the benefits of exercise programs for the elderly that they offer a program called “Freedom Through Functionality” in many of their nursing homes. Using specially modified Nautilus equipment, the program is designed to enhance functional independence and improve quality of life for seniors. The program has been so successful that, in some locations, it is also open to the seniors in the community via a membership.

Even if it’s an uphill battle to convince your loved one, the potential benefits are worth it. By starting slowly and building up gradually, those who have become physically frail from inactivity can more than double their strength in a short period of time. In addition, regular exercise can help prevent or delay the effects of many diseases associated with aging, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

On a more personal level, elderly people who exercise regularly feel better overall, have more energy and are often able to become more independent. For those who have had to rely on others for basic activities of daily living, like dressing or bathing, simply gaining the strength to again perform some or all of these tasks can help restore dignity and confidence.

Because many older people have multiple medical problems, it is critical to get a physician’s approval before undertaking an exercise program. Unless there are medical reasons preventing physical activity, a consulting doctor can provide a patient with safe guidelines and specific, easy-to-perform exercises. Golden Living points out that exercising seniors who live in nursing homes have the added safety advantage of being continually monitored by skilled medical staff.

Some exercises can be performed without equipment — a can of food, for instance, serves nicely as a one-pound weight. In fact, a successful exercise program requires little more than time and commitment. The key is to exercise on a long-term, regular basis. The recommended level for light to moderate physical activity is 30 minutes each day, several days a week.

How can you help your loved one begin? Allow him or her to work at a comfortable pace. Encourage your loved one’s efforts, and celebrate even small improvements in his or her health or physical ability. Most important, help him or her to stick with it.

Another suggestion is to visit your loved one during one of the nursing home’s sponsored exercise programs. Better yet, participate with your loved one in the program. Often they want to “show off” what they can do.

If you would like information about nursing homes in your area, visit www.goldenlivingcenters.com.

Robert Sheckler is executive director of Golden Living Columbus.

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