We all know the value exercise plays in helping to keep us healthy as we age. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise alone can improve overall brain function (particularly memory) and can even increase brain volume in older adults. The effects of heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and a host of other conditions can certainly be mitigated by regular physical activity.
Sometimes though we tend to overlook the positive role exercise plays in helping to keep seniors safe behind the wheel as they progress through the natural aging process.
Exercise can help improve an older driver’s flexibility, coordination, strength, balance and range of motion. Simple stretching exercises can help an older driver look left or right more easily to check their blind spots, or to help ensure a safe lane change. Exercise can also help an older driver turn their neck and body to look behind them before backing. How many tragedies have we read about where an older driver backed over a pedestrian in a parking lot or in some cases, a family member in their own driveway?
A Quick Note About Falls
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one out of three older adults (65+) fall each year. Even the most basic exercise program can help develop stronger muscle tone which can help older drivers get in and out of their car more easily. Just as importantly, a well-attended exercise routine can also help prevent falls in the home.
A recent study conducted by the Department of Ophthalmology, School of Medicine and the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama (Birmingham), reported that older drivers who fell two or more times in the prior year were 1.5 times as likely to be involved in an automobile accident, and a whopping 2 times as likely to be involved in an at-fault accident. Read more in our article titled Falls and Older Driver Safety.
In recent years, a tremendous amount of research has been conducted highlighting the important role physical exercise plays in helping our aging population remain safe drivers.
A 2014 study by The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence and the M.I.T. Age Lab looked at the drivers who exercised for 15-20 minutes daily. The study participants reported greater ease in turning their heads to look in blind spots when changing lanes or backing up, compared with a similar group that did not exercise. The exercise group could also rotate their bodies easily to scan the road when making right-hand turns compared with non-exercisers.
In a study published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity (2011), researchers in Portugal found that significant positive effects were observed in participants of an exercise program. In this particular study, improvements were found in all driving tasks, but particularly in driver reaction time.
The Bottom Line
One of the most effective ways to extend your safe driving career is through an exercise program. Contact your community’s YMCA or senior center to see what classes and programs may be available in your area. Consider enrolling in a Tai chi class or a local wellness program.
Marketers have coined the term “exergamers”, which references older adults who are using Xbox, Wii and PlayStation gaming platforms as an entertaining way to exercise, often times in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. A blog post titled “Why Wii Fit is Best for Grandparents” appeared in the Well section of the NY Times website and told of a study in which an 89-year-old woman with a balance disorder and a history of falls significantly improved her scores on a series of balance tests after just six sessions of Wii Bowling. For good reason, many senior centers are now equipping their facilities with “exergaming” systems.
There are many online resources available to offer tips on exercise and safe driving. The AAA offers guidelines on flexibility exercises for older drivers on their website.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Senior Health website offers specific exercises on improving endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. Of course, remember to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.
Authored by Matt Gurwell, founder of Keeping Us Safe, LLC. Matt works with older drivers to help them determine whether they are still safe drivers. Visit the Keeping Us Safe website at www.keepingussafe.org to learn more about their Enhanced Self-Assessment Program, designed specifically for senior drivers, or to schedule a presentation for your group, business, or organization.