Exercise for the elderly population

Gabriella Kourie advocates that it’s never too late for the elderly to start exercising and celebrate their health and physical capabilities.

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The incidence and prevalence of cancer affects the adult and geriatric populations more greatly than most. In the older adult segment of the population, restructuring cancer care and making it more sustainable is essential for patients to: firstly, complete treatment and secondly to decrease the severity of side effects and avoid the onset of them altogether. In other words, the objective of treatment shouldn’t only be to control the disease, but above all improve quality of life and prevent disability in the older adult population.

After a cancer diagnosis, older adults are at a high risk for functional decline. The physiological changes that can occur with aging negatively impacts the body composition, strength and overall fitness of a person. This in turn increases your vulnerability to both the short-term and long-term effects of the cancer diagnosis and the taxing treatment that accompanies the diagnosis.

Treatment-induced physical disabilities can impair quality of life and limit therapeutic options; having symptoms that stay with you after treatment can add to the financial burdens of cancer care creating a vicious cycle.

Exercise for the elderly population

Exercise has multiple positive effects on both physical and psychosocial well-being in the elderly population. It serves as a foundation of a supportive care intervention that not only improves physical function and symptoms during cancer treatment but the life that follows once treatment is complete.

There is a belief in the older adult population that exercise may be too strenuous and there are of course other limitations that come with this. Patients may have comorbidities, such as a chronic heart condition or bone degeneration, that has kept them away from attempting any form of physical activity. Although the risk of injury may be higher in the older adult population, exercise can be done in any form, for any duration and for all parts of the body safely.

Regular exercise may help the older adult population before, during and after treatment in the following aspects: overall body function; reduction in the feeling of fatigue; improved quality of sleep; improving muscle strength; bone health; decreasing the risk and occurrence of lymphoedema after lymph node removal surgeries, and many more aspects.

Tips to prevent injury and complications 

  • Stay away from uneven surfaces and make sure you’re exercising on a solid surface.
  • Make sure your exercise space is well-lit. 
  • Ensure you’re complying with your treatment guidelines and avoid overcrowded exercise areas, like gyms, while you’re on active treatment.
  • Start slow! Exercise as you’re able. Don’t push yourself while you’re in treatment. Listen to your body and rest when you need to. If you feel very tired, you can try doing 10 minutes of light exercises each day and build up.
  • If you have numbness in your feet or problems with balance, you are at higher risk for falls and need to speak to your oncology rehabilitation therapist for devices and adaptations to be used during exercise.

Making exercise part of everyday tasks

Exercise should be kept fun and it doesn’t have to be difficult or done through big unachievable lifestyle changes. How much you should exercise is different for each person and age is a contributing factor to this. There are ways to add physical activity to the tasks you do every day. Remember, only do what you feel up to doing.

Everyday exercise tasks 

  • Take a walk around the house after a meal.
  • Work in the garden with gentle movements and small tasks.
  • Park your car further than usual to get a few more extra steps in for the day.  Use the stairs instead of the lift or escalators. 
  • Schedule a time for a 10-minute walk in your daily schedule.

Have patience with your body 

Regardless of what exercise you decide to do, muscle wasting, joint stiffness as well as deconditioning and fatigue are inevitable after long periods of treatment but can be changed through movement. Have patience with yourself and with your body’s capabilities. This process shows the order of the key components that need to be addressed when returning to exercising.

Exercise can be tailored to anyone who has gone through treatment and isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription. This is especially true for the elderly adult cancer population. It’s never too late to start exercising and to celebrate your health and physical capabilities at any age.

Gabriella Kourie is a qualified occupational therapist. She further trained and qualified 
as a PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist and is currently qualifying in Lymphoedema Assessment 
and Treatment.

MEET THE EXPERT – Gabriella Kourie

Gabriella Kourie is a qualified occupational therapist. She further trained and qualified as a PORi oncology and breast cancer rehabilitation therapist and is currently qualifying in Lymphoedema Assessment and Treatment.

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