How do I encourage my mother, who has limited mobility, to exercise?

A fellow caregiver asked...

I wish my mom would exercise more, but she refuses to even try. She’s frail, but I’m sure some activity will help her in many ways.

Expert Answer

Laura Cheney, a physical therapist who specializes in geriatrics, graduated with honors from the University of California at San Francisco in 2000. She loves her job working as the sole physical therapist at a premier life-care facility in San Francisco. She has written articles and lectured extensively on fall prevention and other issues relevant to the aging experience. As a registered yoga teacher, she teaches yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques to seniors -- helping them expand their repertoire for coping with stress, pain, and illness in the later years.

Without more specifics on your mother's ability, I'll offer some general recommendations. First, try to find out why she resists exercise. Ask her specific questions to see if you can get the discussion going. Is it too strenuous? Uncomfortable? Is it boring or does it seems unnecessary? Maybe your mother thinks she's unable to exercise. Try not to blame her. Many women of her generation didn't even exercise when they were younger and feeling good! The key is to find something she truly enjoys doing, and help her stay at it long enough to feel the difference. Research shows that even a little bit of exercise, such as walking for ten minutes a day, can improve stamina, muscle strength, and mood in the elderly.

Mostly I find that people resist exercise because they're afraid it will be too strenuous and they'll hurt more. Once they get past this, they learn it doesn't have to hurt and can help them in very real ways. Here are some things to point out to your mom. Regular exercise can help her:

  • move with greater ease
  • live with less pain
  • have more endurance in daily activities
  • sleep better
  • lift her mood
  • decrease her risk of falling and contracting illnesses

Depending on your mother's abilities and personality, she may enjoy exercise classes with a social component, such as Tai chi, chair yoga, or aquatic exercises -- many people love the freedom of moving in a warm therapeutic pool, including people who don't like exercising on land. Most senior and community centers offer classes like these.

If she prefers to be at home, she could use a "peddler," (purchased at a medical supply store), which is a small bike that can be placed in front of her chair while she watches her favorite TV show. She can also look for exercise shows on TV, or rent an exercise DVD. There are many tailored for seniors. If your mom has physical limitations or pain, she can consult with a physical therapist, who can teach her an appropriate exercise regime.

If you can get your mom to agree to start some form of exercise, she should check in with her doctor first. It's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise, but this is especially true for the elderly.