Few things benefit the body more than maintaining physical fitness. While doctors have typically recommended exercise for younger patients, we're realizing how important it is for our older patients as well. Regular exercise, even in one's senior years, can still reduce your risk of a number of health conditions, particularly heart attacks and strokes.

Most communities are blessed to have many options available for exercise, especially those that are supervised. I prefer these activities because a trained professional typically leads the group. This person can make recommendations to get the most out of the program in the safest way possible.

Why is regular exercise so important for seniors? You may have noticed that as our bodies age a number of physiologic changes occur. We lose muscle mass and tone, leading to weakness, reduced flexibility, and problems with balance. Our bones become weaker from a lack of weight-bearing activity. Balance problems and weak bones lead to falls and fractures. Our hearts and lungs can get out of shape causing reduced stamina and difficulty breathing with activity.

Regular exercise can go a long way to delay or even reverse some of these effects of aging. Exercise is a critical component in the treatment and prevention of conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, elevated cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, depression and anxiety.

Exercising in the water is one of the best and safest ways for seniors to work on their fitness. Aquatic programs are excellent for people with painful arthritic joints, especially the knees and hips. Water buoys up the body, reducing stress on the joints. The natural resistance of the water to motion helps build and tone muscles and also improves balance. I even had one patient a few years ago who faithfully attended his aquatics classes and was able to graduate from his wheelchair!

Exercising on dry land is certainly acceptable. Again, I usually recommend supervised programs such as Silver Sneakers®. This is a free program that is available to many seniors who have Medicare supplemental plans such as Humana that pay for memberships at a partnered exercise facility. More information on Silver Sneakers® can be found at www.silversneakers.com or by calling 888-423-4632. Simple things like gardening, yard work or walking are certainly better than sitting on the couch. Walking should always be done in a safe area that is flat and has adequate lighting.

One benefit of regular exercise that most seniors don't consider is that of socialization. Often seniors have become socially isolated either through the death of a spouse or friends. These organized exercise programs provide a way for seniors to get out and interact with people. Most of my patients who have joined one of these programs can't wait to get back for the next session. Regular exercise is also very good for improving mental health and keeping the mind sharp.

Many seniors simply don't want to be bothered with a formal exercise program. Any exercise is better than no exercise, but seniors need to be careful not to do too much too fast. Certain medical conditions may preclude doing certain types of activities.

If you are considering starting an exercise program, it's always a good idea to discuss it with your physician. This is true especially if you suffer from obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, lung disease, have had a stroke or smoke. Your doctor may even provide you with an "exercise prescription" that outlines what he or she wants you to do or avoid.