Quite a few of the older adults I encounter often say this. Is just walking really enough exercise? I’ll say it depends. For someone looking to retain their ability to walk, walking is a good choice of exercise. But if their goal is something more, it probably will be insufficient; walking hardly involves the much-needed load and muscular demand required for bone or muscle growth. Think low bone mass density, think gaining and maintaining strength to easily do stairs, think optimized heart-protective effect, think retaining muscle mass, and think slowing down aging. All these will need much more than just walking to address them. It is after all insanity to do the same things over and again while expecting different results. In order to breach the status quo and progress, we do need to do much more than the walking we already are doing.
So what can help address most of these concerns? It’s basically what individuals of other ages are doing; a combination of low, moderate, and high-intensity exercises. And by intensity, I don’t mean intensity in the absolute sense; I mean intensity relative to the individual. For an older adult who has little leg strength, 8 repetitions of unloaded squats may be considered moderate to high intensity until he/ she becomes stronger. The interesting thing is the body has the potential to adapt and become stronger regardless of age so the same high-intensity exercise now may be considered moderate, or even low-intensity in 3 months' time. The only few differences to consider for older adults are recovery time, structural issues (if any), rate of progression, health status, and energy level. Monitoring all these and tweaking the exercises on an ongoing basis will be a good way to ensure that the individual makes the most out of their potential to improve.
To make it simple, you can view exercise as two main types though each will influence the other and may be classified differently according to fitness level. It’s mainly cardio and muscular. When looking at cardio intensity, you can use a simplistic rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. On a scale of 1 to 10, how high is your heart rate, or how out of breath are you? 1 being sitting on the couch doing nothing, 10 being moving/ running so fast your heart is jumping out of your mouth. Low intensity may be a 2-4, moderate-intensity be 5-6, and high intensity be 7-8. For safety reasons, going to 9 and beyond is probably not the best for older adults when without professional supervision. For most older adults who have no health issue, I’ll say do a fair bit of RPE 2-4, some RPE 5-6, and a little of RPE 7-8. That should cover the bases and allow you to reap a good amount of benefits from exercise. If you do feel you are not as body aware or may not be sure of what your body feels, it’s better to either err on the side of caution and progress intensity slowly or get good guidance.
For intensity relating to muscular efforts, you can also use the concept of the RPE scale without putting a number to it. Instead of looking at how high your heart rate is, you look at how hard the exercise feels. If it’s so hard you can only do no more than 6-8 reps it’s high intensity. If it’s so hard you can only do 10-15 repetitions, it’s moderate intensity. If you can do 20 or more repetitions, it can be considered low intensity. I find this way of classifying intensity more simplistic and works better for older adults. Exercise in itself is pretty complex, I feel there’s no need to make something complex even more complicated.
Armed with these two ways to identify intensities, it’s good to adjust the proportion of each intensity you’ll do. Again, you’ll want to do a fair bit of low-intensity work, some moderate-intensity work, and a little of high-intensity work. This proportion is not fixed for everyone and should be adjusted individually based on their body, their movement, and their goal. Some older adults may not need to do high-intensity muscular exercise unless there is something specific they have to work on.
It’s always good to keep the walking bit as it’s highly accessible, hassle-free, and can be done at one’s convenience. Just have to plan for some moderate and high intensity (if any) work for each week. If it’s all too complex and you don’t know what to do or how to do it, you can always ask YB.
So exercise away! And definitely do more than walking if you can.
Supporting your lifestyle always,