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Healthy aging: Expert advises older adults to continue using abilities

Monday, June 5, 2017


MANHATTAN — The adage of "use it or lose it" is true for seniors' strength, balance and flexibility, according to an expert on aging at Kansas State University.

Gayle Doll, associate professor of human ecology and director of the university's Center on Aging, said older adults can continue to be flexible and strong for much longer than society assumes if they simply continue doing what they can for as long as possible.

"Many of us are accustomed to believe that as we get older, we shouldn't do certain things like climbing the stairs or getting up from the floor, so we quit," Doll said. "In reality, we're still capable of doing those things, but once you stop doing them, they become impossible because we lose the skills."

Most issues seniors face — from physical immobility issues to lack of mental clarity — can be delayed by engaging in physical activity, Doll said.

"The most important thing for mental acuity is exercise," she said.

Even diagnosed diseases can be eased and minimized through frequent exercise, which Doll said doesn't have to be a formal routine or workout video. Aerobic exercise, such as walking, helps reduce fatty levels in the blood and can help prevent strokes, which can lead to cognitive losses, she said.

While walking is one of the simplest, low-impact forms of physical activity, Doll said abilities can be maintained longer for people who do various types of exercises, including strength, balance and flexibility.

Doll said a strength exercise can be as simple as lifting a can of food in each hand for 10-20 repetitions or doing pushups against a wall by leaning toward the wall and pushing back to stand up straight.

Balance can be practiced by holding onto a chair and lifting one leg for a minute, Doll said. The person can then try balancing with only one finger from each hand on the chair. Eventually, they can progress to balancing on one foot without holding onto anything.

"However, doing that exercise might only lead to being able to stand on one leg — it might not translate to other balancing tasks, like walking over curbs," Doll said. "Balance is a really prevalent issue, and if you're going to rebuild it after you've lost it, it requires a lot of slow determination and work."

Flexibility is especially key for maintaining the ability to play sports — a pastime that Doll said does not have to end after a certain birthday.

A client once told her that he had given up tennis, his favorite hobby. When she asked why, he described a tight tendon in his ankle. Doll taught him some stretches, and within a few weeks, he was back to playing tennis. Doll said flexibility issues can affect not only the ability to play sports but also the ability to walk normally.

"A lot of people shuffle because they've lost their ability to lift their toe when they put their foot forward, which is really a matter of flexibility," she said. "The flexibility of the feet and ankles is important."


Gayle Doll


Doll is dole.


Center on Aging


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Gayle Doll

Gayle Doll, associate professor of human ecology and director of Kansas State University's Center on Aging, says "use it or lose it" is true for older adults' physical abilities.

Written by

Tiffany Roney