The weather outside is frightful, but inside the front building at the Oaks of Weymouth on Thursday nights, the atmosphere is calm and content.

About half a dozen women are bending and stretching as new age music plays in the background. Dee Lekas is following the movements of her instructor, Barbara Freeman.

At 73, Lekas, who lives in the adult community, faces increased risks for everything from osteoporosis to heart disease. But through exercise such as yoga, Lekas remains healthy. She's not taking a single prescription medication.

She's even taking on more work, cleaning houses for other older people who might not be as nimble as she is.

"I really have to keep on top of (my health)," Lekas said.

Exercise is important at all stages of life, but it's crucial for people who are 65 and older, doctors say. Exercise can stave off a number of diseases and health issues that many people face later in life, but this older population needs to look at exercise a bit differently than everyone else.

"Exercise is probably the most important you can do (at that age)," said Dr. Robert Beitman, a specialist in geriatrics affiliated with Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point. "Now matter what point you're at now, you can try to prevent any further deterioration."

It's not just poor decisions in diet and inactivity that affect people later in life. The circulatory system's ability to deliver oxygen throughout the body weakens with age. The decline in muscle mass is even more dramatic, since a person can lose 50 percent of their muscle strength between the ages of 25 and 80 if they don't exercise.

All-around approach

That's why seniors are encouraged to fit in exercises in five different categories: cardiovascular health, muscle strength, maintaining healthy body weight, improving flexibility, and improving balance.

"I think people at that age know how important walking and improving cardiovascular health is," said Fred Schuster, an exercise physiologist at Cape Regional Medical Center in Cape May Court House. "But the others may not be as obvious."

The good news is that most of these exercises can be addressed fairly easily and fit into a regular workout routine, according to Schuster and other exercise experts.

The easiest exercise category to address is cardiovascular health. Simply walking for 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week, helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

If walking is difficult, try moving the body around in the pool. Swimming or other in-pool exercise has the same benefits without putting as much pressure on the joints, according to Lynn Mears, the fitness coordinator at the Family Resource Center at Southern Ocean County Hospital in Stafford Township.

Maintaining muscular strength doesn't have to involve being able to benchpress 500 pounds. Schuster said that a person just needs to create resistance - even with small 1-pound or 3-pounds handweights - and make sure to do at least one to three sets with 8 to 12 repetitions in each set. This should be spread out to about three days a week, with 48 hours in between each exercise.

If done right, a person can handle tasks such as grocery shopping with ease, and they can also fight off bone diseases such as osteoporosis.

As a person ages, their metabolic rate goes down. That means it's harder for the body to convert fat tissue into muscle tissue.

Good nutrition

Both the aerobic training and the strength training address body weight. Unfortunately, natural changes in the body aren't the only things that affect body weight.

"A lot of elderly people don't eat right," said Beitman.

Controlling calories in the diet is just as important as the exercise. Even if a person exercises properly, it doesn't mean they'll lose any weight.

As people age, their flexibility decreases because connective tissue hardens and makes joints difficult to move.

Stretching exercises, like the yoga class at Oaks of Weymouth, can increase flexibility by increasing the range of motions on tighter joints.

For the yoga instructor Barbara Freeman, the key for her students is to do whatever they can do, as long as they're moving their joints.

"I don't want to make them feel bad that they can't do it," Freeman said. "In yoga, you just go as far as you can."

The results speak for themselves. Joy Renaud, 73, said when she started taking the yoga class about three and a half years ago, she couldn't touch her toes. Now, she touches them with ease.

"I feel better physically and mentally," Renaud said.

Maintaining balance

When SOCH's Mears heard of one older woman being able to prevent herself from falling as she stumbled on the sidewalk, Mears had proof that being able to balance properly does prevent serious injuries.

"For her, that was huge," Mears said.

To do balance exercises properly, people should try and hold their position for about 5 to 10 seconds before moving onto another position. This should be done at least five days a week for the 65 and over population.

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