The bad news: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and your risk of developing heart disease increases as you age. The good news: While you can’t control your age, you can impact several of the risk factors for cardiovascular problems. Living in an independent senior living community can play a big role in that.
The American College of Sports Medicine identifies the following risk factors for cardiovascular disease:
Gender (being male)
Family medical history
High body mass index (BMI)
Hypertension/ high blood pressure
A survey of 3,910 seniors found that those who lived in retirement communities were two to five times more likely than non-residents to participate in heart-healthy activities such as exercise, social events, and regular movement. Ten percent of residents felt their health had improved since moving into a senior living community and 61% felt they’d maintained their health since the transition.
Sara Kyle, PhD, Director of Resident Experience at Holiday Retirement emphasizes the importance of focusing on controllable factors that influence cardiovascular health in older adults. “Five of the risk factors for heart disease are reversible and can be altered by the environment you’re in,” she says. “Smoking, hypertension, cholesterol, exercise, and diet are all lifestyle interventions.” Independent living communities like Holiday Retirement can play a significant role in the heart health of older adults. “The environment at Holiday lends itself to a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Kyle. “You are set up for positive reinforcement and ample opportunities for movement.”
Here are six ways living in a retirement community can help your heart and your overall health:
#1 Supports the “Accumulative Effect”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of a regular exercise routine, don’t throw in the towel yet. You don’t need to run 5 miles every day or take a long, high-impact fitness class to get the heart-healthy benefits of physical activity. This myth has been debunked by plenty of research, which shows that there’s an accumulative effect to exercise. This means that you can exercise in short chunks of time, instead of all at once.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week for people over age 65. They assert physical activity can take place in bouts of 10 minutes and naturally fit into the context of your daily routine. According to WHO, healthy movement for older adults might include:
Sports or planned exercise
WHO notes that seniors with health conditions which hinder physical activity should be as active as their condition allows.
By design, independent living communities like Holiday Retirement offer built-in ways to be active. “It’s really about opportunities for movement when you’re living in a social environment,” says Dr. Kyle. “Even walking to and from the dining room in our large layout buildings can count toward that daily 30 minutes of movement.” Strolling along paved paths outside with your dog, participating in games and activities, gardening, and taking part in planned fitness are just some examples of simple ways to integrate healthy movement into your day at a senior living community.
#2 Beats the Fitness Doldrums
Seniors who live at home may get in a rut with their physical activity. Doing the same type of exercise can get boring after a while, even tempting you to start skipping your routine. A benefit of living in an independent living community is having an activity calendar with diverse options that are all planned out for you. “When we put together our activity calendars, we aim for many aspects of our activities to be body-based, so the body is moving and doing,” says Dr. Kyle. “Most Holiday retirement communities offer options like Tai Chi, yoga, or the ever-popular bean bag baseball.”
Living in a senior living community provides various options for staying fit, and at different levels of difficulty. For example, resident-led exercise classes and fitness equipment, like recumbent bicycles, are also available to residents at Holiday Retirement. Some of the West Coast senior living communities recently rolled out s3 balance devices, which improve strength and balance, and have been proven to reduce the risk of falls. “We have free exercise classes on campus, a nutritional, heart-healthy option for lunch and dinner, outside walking capabilities, and several activities that support body-based movement,” says Dr. Kyle. An independent living community offers fitness opportunities for those who’ve been exercising awhile as well as people who are just starting to get active or have physical conditions that challenge their fitness capabilities.
#3 Inspires Socialization
Physical activity is good, but doing it among friends is better. “Research is starting to show that getting to that second layer of movement and exercise is a social setting that supports preservation,” says Dr. Kyle. She explains that the mind is engaged in a social setting like a retirement community because it’s a dynamic environment. Aging in place doesn’t provide the same type of physical and mental stimulation that life in a senior living community can offer. “Yes, you may exercise every day at home, but it’s not as effective as if you coupled that with a social setting where your mind is having to maneuver non-habitual environments,” says Dr. Kyle.
The link between socialization and heart health is the subject of several recent studies:
A 2017 analysis of 22 cross-sectional studies found older adults with more social support are more likely to engage in physically active leisure time.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Aging and Health showed that poor social support and integration later in life can lead to an increase in systolic blood pressure and a higher risk of hypertension.
A 10-year review of social relationships and hypertension late in life found poor social support can significantly increase the risk of negative outcomes in cardiac patients.
#4 Fan the Flames of Positive Peer Pressure
An important piece of the socialization aspect of fitness is positive peer pressure. “We tend to mimic the environment we’re in,” says Dr. Kyle. “When your environment is thriving and moving, it makes it easier to start that type of daily interaction, more so than at home, which doesn’t have that positive peer pressure.” In other words, if your senior living community friends are all doing chair yoga or getting up for the walking club every morning, you’re more likely to follow suit.
The peer pressure factor is backed by research. A 2016 study of 1,285 people over age 60 found that older adults who walked with peers or family had a 2.45 times higher likelihood of fulfilling recommendations for leisure-time physical activity for their age group. Participants who had friends that engaged in moderate-to-vigorous activity were 3.23 times more likely to fulfill physical activity recommendations. Get yourself to that Zumba class or bean bag tournament. “Everyone else is doing it.”
#5 Combats Stress
Stress doesn’t do your heart any favors. Research heavily links stress with cardiovascular disease, regardless of genetics and comorbid conditions. There are multiple ways a senior living community can help you manage stress. For instance, Dr. Kyle notes that many Holiday retirement communities offer yoga and Tai Chi, which are effective arsenal in the fight against anxiety and stress. Sometimes referred to as “meditation in motion,” these practices can help you “land” in your body through stretching, balancing, relaxing, and breathing techniques. Over time, these efforts can pause or slow down the hamster wheel of thoughts that can fuel stress.
#6 Helps You Catch Some Zzz’s
A hidden heart-healthy benefit of senior living communities is the potential for good sleep hygiene. Getting the right amount and quality of sleep has been found to be critical to heart health. “There’s a misconception that as we age, we need less sleep. “It’s exactly the opposite,” says Dr. Kyle. “We need 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep every night.”
Independent living communities can support good sleep and hygiene through the physical and mental stimulation they provide. There’s a link between movement, mental stimulation, and getting a good night’s rest. “If people are engaged throughout the day, then the mind is tired at night and goes to bed,” says Dr. Kyle.
It’s easy for sleep patterns to get out of whack when you live alone at home. You may stay up late, nap a lot, and have varying sleep\wake cycles. “If you take advantage of the mental stimulation and exercise at an independent living community, it can be very conducive to good sleep hygiene,” says Dr. Kyle.
Start Where You Are
If you’re already on track to maintaining a healthy heart and lifestyle, keep up the good work. If you’re worried about your heart and wondering what you can do about it, physical activity and positive lifestyle changes will make a difference. “You can benefit from exercise and activity at any age,” says Dr. Kyle. “Anyone who goes from doing nothing to something is going to benefit.” Movement will enhance your health regardless of your current health status. No matter what your age or your fitness history, it’s never too late to reap the rewards of physical activity.
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