by Marlene Cimons

Older people have much to gain from regular exercise, and there is a wide variety of options available to them.

“Exercise has shown to be beneficial at all ages,” says Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging (NIA). “In fact, you have more to lose by not exercising.”

At the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA, many people older than 55 work out on a regular basis, including several in their 90s. Some come in wheelchairs or with canes or walkers. There are classes designed for older members as well as a diabetes prevention program. Moreover, at least one Medicare supplemental insurance plan offers discounts on fees at the Y to encourage people to exercise.

There also is the lure of the Y’s three swimming pools — one of them heated to 88 degrees — and a whirlpool.

“We do attract seniors, and I think it’s because of the warm water,” says Carla Larrick, vice president of operations for the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. “The water is the place to be. It takes weight off the joints.”

The NIA sponsors an exercise and physical activity campaign called Go4Life, aimed at encouraging older people to incorporate fitness into their lives, including information on exercise, nutrition and how to stay safe. Numerous studies “have very much changed our thinking about the possibility that interventions like exercise might really help even our oldest adults,’’ Hodes says.

One large NIA-sponsored clinical trial, for example, found that a regular, balanced and moderate physical activity program that was followed for an average of 2.6 years reduced the risk of major mobility disability by 18 percent in an elderly population. The participants in the structured exercise program were better able than those who took part in health education classes to maintain their ability to walk without assistance for about a quarter of a mile, the primary measure of the study.

People with chronic conditions should check with their physicians before starting an exercise program, “but unless there is a specific reason not to do so, they should try,” Hodes says. “We know, even in cases of disability, that an appropriate form of exercise or physical activity usually can help someone feel and function better.”