A lot of things happen to our bodies as we age. We notice the signs on our skin, in our brains, and in our bodies. There are lots of things that people do to try to feel and look younger, from skin treatments to memory exercises, to the one thing that might be the most important: exercise and physical movement.
Exercise is a powerful tool for human health, especially for those of us from 40 years of age and up. As we get older, we are more susceptible to disease, chronic conditions, illness, and mortality. Physical movement is the best way to boost your health, protect against chronic conditions, and build strength.
How We Age
Getting older means experiencing a lot of changes in the body. Just about every body system can decline over time. Recovery time from injuries and illness is longer, and our heart rate continues to decline. Exercising becomes more difficult and endurance suffers. The arteries in the heart become weaker and can start to deteriorate while also collecting atherosclerotic plaque. Breathing gets harder as the chest wall gets stiffer with age. Without this flexibility, breathing gets labored more easily, especially when exercising.
Strength is also an issue when you are getting older. Muscle mass starts to decline in your 40s and continues throughout your lifetime. This loss of strength can affect not just weight lifting performance, but also aerobic performance, and the tolerance for physical activity. You can expect to lose about 6% of your muscle mass every decade, until the age of 70, when it starts to decline even faster.
While muscle weakness and the loss of muscle mass both happen with aging, they cause different issues. Low muscle mass can have a big effect on your metabolism and heart and vein function. Muscle weakness will harm your mobility and is a major predictor of how well you will be able to handle regular daily tasks. This can include walking around the house, climbing stairs, and even getting up and down from the couch. These types of activities require you to contract your muscles as far as they can go, or close to it, and without enough muscle mass they will become difficult.
The body’s natural balance functions will decline as you age as well. To compensate, people use their vision and habit to help with balance. However, if the body has also lost enough muscle strength then there is an increased risk of falls and injuries. Emergency rooms around the world are inundated with seniors who have fractured their hips from falls.
Physical Therapy Benefits for Older Adults
There is no way to stop aging, but there are ways to help slow the effects and even improve the functions of the body. This can help prevent injury, maintain independence, and improve or sustain quality of life. Strength training and physiotherapy can help with all of these and provide many benefits.
With the weak muscles that come with age, you could experience back, neck, and joint pain since the muscles are not able to properly support the spine. Pain can also come from the limited blood flow that occurs with plaque build-up in the veins and arteries. Physiotherapy can improve core strength, which will help with mobility and flexibility, while will improve blood flow. These can all help alleviate and prevent pain.
Exercise can be dangerous for older adults. This is especially true for people with existing health issues, such as osteoporosis and heart disease, among others. By exercising under the supervision of a physiotherapist, a senior can avoid injury while still enjoying the health benefits.
Seniors can also suffer from social isolation issues. By working with a physiotherapist they can have some much-needed social time with another adult. This will help you feel less isolated and provide mental health benefits.
Stability and Strength
As mentioned, falls are especially dangerous for seniors. They suffer fractures and other injuries that can have much more of a negative effect than for younger people. Physiotherapy improves strength and muscle mass to maintain balance and to protect against injury if a fall does occur.
Alternatives to More Invasive Treatments
One of the best things about physiotherapy is that it is non-invasive and does not involve pharmaceuticals. While surgery and medication can be important, it is always best to limit them if possible. By improving strength and flexibility, it will help with several health issues, but it can also prevent injuries from falls. The treatments for these will often involve invasive treatments or strenuous medication regimes. Surgery is particularly risky for older people, so avoiding these types of interventions should be a priority for any older adult.
Preparation and Recovery For Surgery
While physiotherapy can help avoid surgery, there are still cases when surgery will be unavoidable. It’s important to build up your strength before surgery to be able to tolerate the procedure and the healing afterward. Post-surgery, the physio will help with strength and mobility so that you can better recover.
The physical health benefits of exercise are well-documented, but exercise also has mental health benefits, too. Pain, lifestyle changes, isolation, and adjusting to retired life can all impact mental health. Exercise releases endorphins which can help with depression and anxiety.
When you combine all of these benefits, they can all add up to providing more independence in the lift of an older adult. Independence is a major factor in the quality of life for seniors and improves dignity and happiness. Physiotherapy can ward off the use of a wheelchair, keep seniors driving longer, and help someone live at home or unassisted longer.
How Physiotherapy Provides Benefits During the Aging Process
The cardiovascular system can greatly benefit from physiotherapy as the body ages. A physiotherapist that specializes in working with older adults can create a tailored program for their clients that can target the cardiovascular system. Strength and resistance training is an important part of this process. It can improve your VO2 peak and prevent cardiovascular disease. Traditionally, aerobic activity has been the main component of a cardiovascular exercise routine, but recently it’s been found that resistance training on its own or combined with aerobic training will achieve the best results.
Since muscle strength declines with age, it’s important to do what you can to sustain it and prevent it from declining too much too quickly. When you lose muscle mass it can be replaced by fat, which causes a condition known as sarcopenia. This condition can lead to physical disability and death. Physiotherapy will keep your muscle mass at a consistent level and prevent fat buildup as well. The earlier this therapy starts, the better results you will get. In fact, it’s best to start preparing in your 40s so that your body is well prepared when muscle mass starts to decline naturally.
Older adults can be more vulnerable to external forces as they age. They are known to suffer from fatigue, weight loss, weakness, and slow walking speed. If you get to the point where you are exceedingly frail, then you are more at risk for morbidity, falls, mortality, and needing health care services. Physical activity and physiotherapy can help fight off frailty. People who are more active are less likely to suffer from frailty.
Since falls are such a risk for seniors, training the body to prevent them is a major priority for physiotherapy. Falls can cause a primary injury, such as a fracture, but they can also lead to further problems beyond that. These problems include reduced activity, which causes a loss of muscle mass and stamina. Physiotherapy can work as balance training and also to improve muscle mass. The loss of muscle mass is a primary cause of falls amongst seniors, along with slow movement and slow gait speed. Movement therapy can improve your gait mechanics, which will improve speed and make it easier to clear obstacles that can cause trips and falls.
Physiotherapy Treatments and Assistance
There are several things that your physiotherapy can do to benefit older adults and seniors. Here is a listing of some of them.
Your physiotherapist can create a custom program that targets your specific issue. They will give you a physical assessment and decide on a course of action that will suit your needs and is safe for your condition.
Massage isn’t just about relaxation. It can also help relax muscles that are tense and make them more flexible. This can improve range of motion and mobility. It will also help with healing from soft tissue injuries and reduce pain.
Joint mobilization can provide several benefits. For instance, making your joints more mobile will reduce pain and stiffness. Underuse of joints is a big issue for older adults, especially those who are confined to a wheelchair or spend too much time in bed or on the couch. Joint manipulation will relieve any musculoskeletal pain, improve your range of motion by unlocking stiff joints and help recovery time from sprains and strains.
Physiotherapy can help with breathing issues that are common as people get older. Physiotherapists can provide airway clearance techniques that will open up the airway and improve breathing difficulties. This will help when exercising and performing day-to-day activities.
Skin and Wound Care
Physiotherapists understand tissue healing and anatomy and can help with wound care and treatment. Many older adults who have mobility issues may walk or move in a way that can cause irritation and breaks in the skin. A physiotherapist can identify the causes of any wounds and help to alleviate those issues. They will also provide you with techniques you can use at home to treat and prevent wounds.
Application of Assistive and Adaptive Devices
Assistive devices are incredibly important when it comes to fighting certain conditions that affect older adults, such as arthritis and lack of mobility. Walking poles, canes, braces, walkers, and other devices all help to allow people to be more independent and improve their quality of life. Assistive devices will help with posture, which can improve flexibility and core strength, and prevent spine issues that can lead to many other issues with health and mobility.
Assisting With Barriers to Function and Exercise
Seniors can face several barriers to exercise and activity. In many cases it’s a safety issue, such as the fear of falling or of running out of breath. There may also be a lack of education on what constitutes effective exercise and therapy. Many older adults also simply deal with a lack of confidence when it comes to exercise which can cause them to avoid it. A physiotherapist will help provide the education and support that people need to make the appropriate physical activity changes they need to make to improve their health.
As people age, their gait mechanics can deteriorate as poor habits are only exacerbated over time. Poor gait mechanics can cause not just foot pain, but putting pressure on the wrong areas of the feet can reverberate up to the spine and neck. Alleviating this will require proper foot care and custom orthotics to help support and alleviate pressure. A physiotherapist can help with choosing the right orthotics for your feet that will help with pain and improve gait mechanics.
Many older adults might feel like their best days are behind them, even if they are at a relatively young age, like in their 40s. However, physiotherapy can help to improve the quality of life and sustain some of the body functions that tend to decline with age. It works best as a preventative measure and is started as early as possible. When you get into your 40s, preventative physiotherapy will help to avoid unnecessary surgeries and medications. Not only that, but if you do need surgery or suffer an injury, it will help with healing and recovery.