Regular movement, good food and quality sleep all help to form the basis of a healthy life. However, as we age and ailments begin to crop up, exercise is often the first thing that gets dropped.
But gentler forms of exercise such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates improve health outcomes and offer other benefits as well.
Which is right for you?
When embarking on a new exercise regime, Lisa recommends getting an expert opinion before diving in.
“Your GP is a good starting point, just to make sure there are no big medical conditions that are going to be getting in the way of you starting a new form of exercise,” Lisa says.
“You could also speak to a physio, as they can diagnose a physical condition and, if it’s needed, provide a rehabilitation plan or guidance.”
Once considered the domain of new-agers and hippies, in recent years yoga has become one of the most popular forms of exercise in the world.
Originating in northern India more than 5,000 years ago, yoga as we know it today, was brought to the West in the late 1800s and early 1900s and has slowly grown in popularity to the point where most gyms now include classes on their timetables. What’s more, research has shown the benefits of regular yoga practice can appear after a short period of time.
So, what is yoga? Far from chanting on a mat while incense burns in the background, the most common form in Australia is hatha yoga, which focuses on the physical poses—called asana—as a form of low impact exercise with each posture linked to the breath.
What’s more, rather than being the domain of younger generations, research has shown that when practiced correctly yoga also has numerous benefits for seniors. Brisbane-based physiotherapist, yoga teacher and Pilates instructor, Lisa Birmingham, agrees and says when it comes to improving balance, mindfulness and mobility there is little that can beat a yoga flow.
"There’s research coming out now that shows how beneficial yoga is because it does have the mindfulness and breathing element to it,” Lisa says.
“The research shows both of those things help to increase your immune system and decrease your stress levels and comorbidity, which the older population is more at risk of. Things like strokes, dementia, and Alzheimer's can all be decreased if you participate in exercise in general, but specifically yoga because it’s kind of an all-in-one. It has the physical side to it, the breathing side to it and the mindfulness.”
Lisa says another benefit of yoga is that it provides strengthening and stretching at the same time, while many of the postures also help to challenge balance in a safe way.
“In yoga, you’re lengthening muscles while building strength, especially in sustained poses such as ‘Warrior 2’ where you can have certain muscles on stretch like your hamstrings, your external rotators of your hips and even your chest muscles if you have the correct posture. At the same time, you’re strengthening your quads, your posture muscles, abs and even pelvic floor,” she says. “A lot of the postures can be easily modified to adapt to decreased mobility or range of movement.”
Pilates is another great low-impact exercise option. Developed in the early 20th century by German physical trainer Joseph Pilates, this exercise regime can appear similar to yoga poses. However, focus is placed primarily on building strength rather than flexibility.
Typically performed on a mat or reformer machine, Pilates can help strengthen big muscle groups as well as your core—those deep paraspinal muscles that help support the back.
“Good posture helps promote better breathing, which is really important for seniors," Lisa says.
“That’s one of the best things about Pilates; it teaches you how to breathe correctly, how to get into a better posture and how to maintain it throughout the day.”
Often described as meditation in motion, tai chi is a Chinese martial art practiced for defence training, health benefits and meditation. In fact, a 2019 Harvard Health Publishing article quipped tai chi should be called medication in motion as there is growing evidence it could help treat or prevent many health problems.
Tai chi is performed standing and is comprised of low-impact, circular exercises that are moved through slowly and continuously. You are encouraged
to breathe deeply and focus your attention on bodily sensations.
Tai chi can be easily adapted to suit anyone, whether they have complete mobility, are in a wheelchair or are recovering from surgery, with the added bonus of improved upper and lower body strength, boosted flexibility and improved balance.
“It’s very flowy and it’s not physically intense, so it’s appropriate for people who have joint issues, pre-existing injuries or they’re just getting back into exercise and need to take it slow,” Lisa says.