Gentle exercise like walking and water aerobics is not enough for seniors, who should use weights to maintain bone and muscle health and avoid potential fractures and falls, says a Deakin University study.
Community exercise programs could be key to improving the health of Australia’s ageing population, with around 75 to 95 per cent of those over 50 not doing enough physical activity to strengthen their muscles and bones, which start to deteriorate in the late forties.
Professor Robin Daly, Chair in Exercise and Ageing at Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, told Community Care Review most seniors don’t realise how important weight-bearing exercise is for their bodies.
“Your bones are there to support your muscles to create movement, so if you have low bone strength, you’re at increased risk of having a fracture,” he said.
“But osteoporosis or low bone density is a hidden disease. The only way you know if you have it is if you have a scan or you sustain a fracture.”
The consequences of fractures for seniors can be devastating. A quarter of those who suffer a hip fracture die within six months, while 40 per cent never regain their full level of function.
The only way to treat muscle loss is exercise.
“Bones are alive and they like to be stressed, so when you do activities that put strain on them, the bone cells get excited and form new cells,” said Professor Daly.
Good active exercise to target bone health includes dancing, stepping, jogging, stair climbing, skipping and tennis. Also key is progressive weight-bearing exercise that targets the muscles around the hip and spine, with rapid, short sessions twice a week more effective than one long session.
With this in mind, Professor Daly developed Osteo-cise: Strong Bones for Life, an exercise program that was trialled in a number of community leisure centres in Melbourne’s western suburbs over a 12-month period.
Gym instructors at participating leisure centres were upskilled to deliver tailored exercise programs to people over 60 living in the community, who were at risk of falls and fractures due to low bone density or osteopenia. The program specially targeted the muscles around the hip and spine.
Evaluating the participants alongside a control group, the program was found to vastly improve bone mineral density, muscle strength and physical function – not only when researchers were closely overseeing the program but also afterwards, when leisure centres took over its management.
Professor Daly was excited by the results.
“We showed that what we developed in theory does work in practice in the real world to get older Australians active in improving their musculoskeletal health.”
He hopes to secure further funding to upskill more trainers and take the Osteo-cise program nationwide.
“What we want to do next is train up more health professionals to deliver this kind of program to older Australians, and provide professional development for clinicians on best practice exercise programs for older people,” he said.
“Now we’ve shown what works, we want to scale that up, and get more older Australians building healthy bones and strong muscles for life.”