Fitness should be the #1 priority at any age because living a healthy lifestyle helps build a healthy life, but it’s especially important for seniors. As we age, cognitive thinking declines but fear not, because this can be improved with a little exercise.

But what type of exercise works best? And can you reverse the damage previously done by a former sedentary lifestyle?

We reached out to Regional Physician Director Dr. Sean Hashmi, MD of Weight Management & Clinical Nutrition at Kaiser Permanente to help answer these questions and more.

How does living an active lifestyle help improve cognitive function?

Great question. There is good data showing that simple things like walking or aerobic exercise lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and dementia. What about depression in the elderly? This is a big issue clearly tied to cognition. People who are more depressed are more likely to experience cognitive ability declines. According to current studies, all types of exercise were associated with a lower mental health burden (S.R. Chekroud, The Lancet, 2018

If you’ve always lived a pretty sedentary lifestyle, is it possible to change the body later on in life to become more active? What are some ways to help this?

It’s never too late to change. Get some exercise and feel better. It’s important to look at the mental health burden, especially in our older population. According to a recent study of 1,237,194 subjects of all ages (S.R. Chekroud, The Lancet, 2018), numbers of depressive days and days of feeling overwhelmed were reduced by 43 percent among those who participated in 45 minutes of walking five days per week. For some, it’s not about going to the gym, it’s just walking.

What are some good examples of ways seniors can stay in shape?

There’s no single method. Just get up and move. Walk, dance, run, jog. Just do it. The simplest thing is if you make activity a part of what you do. Park at the furthest spot away from the grocery store. Walk through every aisle. Take the stairs, not the elevator. Once we start to make exercise a habit as part of everything we do, it becomes a natural part of life. You need to love yourself. If you can’t take care of and love yourself, you can’t love anybody else.

Is there a certain type of exercise that proves more beneficial for seniors?

Seniors should do some aerobic exercise and resistance training. Simple things like pushups against the wall. For some people, they will prefer something more hard-core and do some weight-lifting at the gym with assistance from trainers. The best time for exercise is in the morning, when you have the most energy and are not distracted. The anti-depressive effect of exercise is stronger in morning. But if you can’t move first thing in the morning, just move.

What type of diet should seniors aim for, for optimal health benefits?

There’s no difference in what we recommend for children, adults or seniors. The Kaiser Permanente Center for Healthy Living recommends a diet composed of whole foods, mostly plants. The idea is that you should eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, beans and lentils. They’re absolutely wonderful and we should eat more of them. Everybody is looking for shortcut, and we just don’t have evidence on all of these new crazes. Just eat whole foods, mostly plants.

Responses provided by Regional Physician Director, Dr. Sean Hashmi, MD, of Weight Management & Clinical Nutrition, at Kaiser Permanente.

Some responses may have been slightly adjusted for clarity and/or grammatical purposes.