Never too old to get physical
But doctors warn, while exercise is important for good health, the elderly shouldn't rush into strenuous activities
The elderly in Bangkok's Din Daeng district gather regularly to exercise. They are aware of research which suggests that exercising in their middle age is likely to keep them in good health for many years to come.
Panee Veerakul, a 71-year-old resident in Din Daeng, did not start exercising until she was in her late 40s. At that time she was battling chronic knee pain, which began when she was 45.
Ms Panee, whose family owned a grocery store, was diagnosed with osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, and was prescribed medication to treat the nagging pain.
The medicine was no magic bullet; she had to rely on pain relief creams to ease her discomfort. She also took diet supplements hoping they would strengthen her joints and bones.
The pain persisted after five years and Ms Panee started to worry about the damage the medication could do to her liver and kidneys. She tried to rely less on medication and more on massaging balms. All these years she forked out between 6,000-7,000 baht monthly to alleviate her knee pain.
"The pain was so bad that I broke into tears. I was afraid I couldn't walk. I was afraid of dying because of the damage the medication would do to my liver," she said.
Determined that she did not want to take medicine for the rest of her life, Ms Panee started looking for an alternative and the sight of a group of elderly doing the slow and purposeful movements of Tai Chi caught her attention.
After discussing her condition with Thassana Tothanakasem, president of the Din Daeng community club for the elderly, she started practising Tai Chi for one and a half hours every day. Still, she continued to take her medication.
"After a while I felt the strength [return] in my legs. I could walk longer distances and the pain seemed to be less intense.
"My doctor cut down the medicine and after two years of practice, the doctor stopped prescribing the pills and told me to do physical therapy," she said.
Ms Panee says her knee pain is now history and she even has a little fun skiing during her trips abroad.
While the health benefits of exercise among the elderly are well documented, only 30% of Thais regularly exercise, including physical training by school students, according to Assoc Prof Somnuke Gulsatitporn, a physical therapy specialist at the Faculty of Allied Health Science, Chulalongkorn University.
Even so, some of the people who exercise undertake fitness programmes that do more harm than good to their bodies and many end up with injuries, he said.
While people are recommended to exercise 30 minutes per day for three days a week, that does not mean anyone can jump into an aerobics class or a basketball game without preparation.
Assoc Prof Somnuke, who has a keen interest in geriatric physical therapy, said the key to injury-free fitness is to start slowly and reap the benefits as the years pass.
"That's why middle-aged people are encouraged to exercise more so they stay fit and healthy in their senior years. Some old people can still enjoy sports like a mini-marathon," he said.
He said even though exercise is highly recommended, the public, especially the elderly with certain health conditions, need to consult physical therapists to ensure their exercise programmes do not cause harm.
Mr Thassana, 81, said he introduced Tai Chi to the club after joining it and it has become popular among members especially those who have knee and back issues.
He said Tai Chi is considered safe for the elderly and those with joint or back problems because it is designed to promote movements of the entire body as well as balance and coordination.
Don Pianngam, 86, a club member, said he loves his Tai Chi classes because they make him feel energised. However, he pointed out that he does it at his own fitness level.
"Sometimes I need rest, so I take a rest. I do what I can. I feel good to get the stretches. I think it helps me sleep better too," he said.
His wife, Thipyapa, 80, said her husband practised Tai Chai at the urging of their daughter who wants him to have some social activities after his retirement.
Ms Thipyapa said she and her husband usually practise Tai Chi with the club members three days a week and the group exercise is not only good for their physical health but also mental health.
The Din Daeng community club for the elderly is part of a strong community that works to promote the wellbeing of senior citizens in the district.
Pimolnaree Sutsuwan, a social worker at the Din Daeng healthcare service centre, said the club and the health service centre have been working together to promote the well-being of the elderly.
In addition to Tai Chi, other recreational activities are also available for the elderly such as cooking classes or basic Chinese and English speaking classes.
One project is a medical equipment and essential supplies bank for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Club members have raised funds to buy equipment and necessary supplies.
Those in need can take the devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, air beds, oxygen-making equipment and oxygen cylinders for use at home.
Supplies such as adult nappies for the elderly and supplementary diets are also available.
According to Ms Pimolnaree, the number of people aged 60 and over in the district stands at 22,000 and most of them are considered fit for their age.