I have been thinking over the past few years about how to keep my body healthy and fit so that I can be active as I get older. If I’m thinking about this, maybe you are too. While it’s a lot of fun talking every week about clothes, trends, and makeup, it’s important to talk about what can keep us healthy and positively affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. For me, being consistent about fitness is always an advance-and-retreat game. I’m committed for a period of time, and then I fall out of the habit. I don’t think that’s very unusual for most of us. But it is SO important to focus on fitness, and to figure out a way to keep it integrated, no matter what age you are, and especially for those of us who have passed 40 or 50. I hope you don’t mind if we focus today on this. There are also a few tips about how you can incorporate exercise into your life simply – it’s never too early or too late!
We are living longer than ever with life expectancies increasing all the time. But we are not necessarily living better. As we age, we run the risk of a variety of health complications and decreased mobility. Our bones can become brittle, our muscles strength decreases, our flexibility and balance diminish. In addition, chronic disease, like diabetes and heart disease, is also growing as people live to older ages. This isn’t the outcome we hope for when we think about a longer life. If we are living longer, we’d like to be healthy enough to do things we love and feel good.
I’m healthy now and my muscle strength is probably better than average for my age. And I want it to stay that way. In addition, I want to preserve my balance and posture (that could use some help right now!) as I get older. I want to maintain my healthy gait. I want to be flexible. What’s on your list of what you want your physical health to look like as you age? Have you thought about it yet?
This post is a little longer than my usual, but it’s because there’s a lot to talk about. I decided to present it in two parts: Part A and Part B. Part A is a very general overview of the importance of maintaining fitness for health as well as some ideas for finding ways to integrate exercise. Part B is a more detailed exploration. Part A is complete on its own, so stop there if it’s enough for you. Interested in a little more? Then continue on to Part B.
Part A – Simple Ways to Maintain a Healthy Body as You Age
Let’s be honest, we all know exercise is an important component to being healthy, no matter what age you are. We all don’t love to exercise, however. That’s the dilemma. If you don’t like to exercise, or if you just haven’t been successful at making it a habit, what can you do to incorporate beneficial movement into your life so that you are healthy now and so you give yourself the very best opportunity for healthy senior years? (It may seem like this conversation doesn’t apply to you if you’re not already over 40, but don’t be fooled! The ideal scenario is to make exercise part of your life starting at a young age and begin good habits now that support you going forward. The younger you start, the better your results will be both in appearance and internal health.)
To maintain a healthy weight and keep yourself strong and flexible, start simply and start with something you enjoy. The more complicated you make starting a healthy exercise routine, the less likely you are to keep it up. Another way to support your commitment is to partner with a friend. Being accountable to someone else is a great way to stick with your commitment.
Here are a some ideas for starting a fitness routine:
- Make a date with a friend (or your dog!) for a 30-minute walk at least 3-5 days a week. (We’ve had Labrador retrievers for 16 years, and, believe me, they keep you moving – daily walks are pretty much a requirement for that breed!) To incorporate some strength exercises, hold some light hand weights while you walk. (You want to be able to carry your grocery bags when you’re 85, don’t you?!) If you’re new to this, make sure the weights aren’t too heavy – it does you no good to try to start too fast and then end up with an injury that could take months to heal. (Don’t use weights if you are walking your dog.)
- Work out at home – Use DVDs or streaming services (Comcast’s On Demand service offers many recorded exercise videos from yoga to focused ab workouts).
- Check out your city’s recreation department – there are usually a number of classes offered at very reasonable prices (e.g., Jazzercise types of classes, Zumba – super fun Latin America inspired dance, pole dancing – GREAT exercise, hula or belly dance, yoga, weight training).
- Join a gym with (or without) a friend. I think every city has at least one gym. There are many different ways gyms (or health clubs) work and different plans for memberships, so find the one that fits your budget and interests. Many gyms offer personal training, and if you can fit it into your budget, book some sessions with a personal trainer for at least a few weeks. It’s the best way to work out – you have someone to be accountable to and the trainer knows many ways to approach and accomplish your goals. (I’ve had a gym membership since I was about 19 or 20 as I need to be in a place where everyone else is working out too so that I can keep myself focused.)
The bottom line is . . .
find whatever works best for you. If you don’t like it, you won’t do it. That being said, starting a new fitness routine, especially if it’s new to you, does take a commitment in the beginning. Keep in mind that it takes 3-4 weeks to establish a new habit. So promise yourself you’ll stick with it at least that long. You will definitely begin to feel the benefits fairly early and it’s great to see results happening, but you may have to have faith in those first weeks that it will get easier and good things are happening. Remember that you are giving yourself a gift that will repay you not just in the present but also years down the road. My motivation has two parts: first, I want to be able to have freedom in my senior years – travel, hike, shop; second, I want to be healthy and fit so that I can be active with my grandchildren (if I have them!) – I don’t anticipate that happening in the very near future, so I’d better keep myself active looking toward the future.
Another tip to help incorporate fitness for long-term benefits: Have a pair of hand weights at home located near where you spend a lot of time – maybe next to the couch or chair where you watch TV – and do some reps while you’re watching your favorite show or chatting on the phone. The weights don’t have to be heavy; start with 3-5 pounds.
What to Wear – Is It Really that Important?
And here’s a tip that may not seem very important, but in my opinion it really supports a workout. However you decide to incorporate a fitness routine into your life, wear activity-appropriate clothing that makes you feel strong and and attractive. It may sound trivial, but, trust me, you will feel more motivated and inspired in your activities when you feel good. DO NOT wear your old clothes that don’t fit well or are ready to be discarded. You can find exercise wear everywhere and at every price point, from budget retailers like Target, Nordstrom Rack, and Ross to mid-price options like Nordstrom and Kohl’s, to premium brands like Athleta and Lululemon.
Here’s an example of the benefit of wearing and using appropriate clothing or equipment (in this case): My husband and I have begun hiking, and I have recently acquired hiking-specific gear to wear and use. This has made a huge difference for me safety-wise (I’m a bit klutzy on the declines!) and in my enjoyment and the benefit I get from hikes. I have the right hiking shoes and socks, and my husband gave me a great pair of hiking poles for Christmas, which I used for the first time on our hike in Armstrong Woods in Sonoma County a couple of weeks ago. The poles made a big difference for me. And wearing the right clothes for the activity helps me feel motivated. (P.S. Remember to enjoy the side benefits to your workout – like the beautiful scenery when you are doing something outdoors.)
Although this is an outdoor exercise example, it applies to all activities, indoors and out. Check out my post about that here.
Part B – Diving Deeper into Keeping Your Body Healthy as You Get Older
So What’s Your Body Doing as You Get Older?
Some studies have suggested that a little life planning might change the possible outcome that our longer lives will be lived with chronic disease or health issues. An extremely important piece of this plan includes being, or becoming, fit in middle age, if not before.
Your skeletal and muscular systems play a critical role in your health as you age.
Bones: Women in particular experience a decrease in bone density as we age, beginning after the age of 30 and especially after menopause. As bones lose calcium and other minerals, posture can become hunched over and joints may become less flexible and inflamed. Movement slows down and may become limited and unstable, and risk of injury increases resulting from a combination of instability and brittle bones.
Muscles: You may have already noticed muscle mass decreases as you’ve gotten older or less active. Beginning about age 40 adults lose 3-5% of muscle mass per decade. This decline increases to 1-2% per year after age 50. Muscle strength is important, in the big picture, helping us maintain independence and mobility. Muscle burns calories, helps maintain weight, and contributes to balance and bone strength.
Exercising during mid-life (defined by some as 45-65) should be part of your life plan, especially if you haven’t incorporated a regular habit of physical activity into your routines already. Exercise at any age provides multiple benefits, including, of course, weight control and weight loss, but also heart health, stress reduction, flexibility, strength, balance, depression improvement, and possibly increased cognitive function and memory improvement. We know exercise is important, and becomes more so as the effects of aging begin to influence our mental and emotional health and our physical abilities.
There Is Something You Can Do About It!
What can you do to maintain or improve your health as you age? Of course, there are multiple components to this formula, including genetics, diet, and medical conditions. Exercise is just one of the aspects of maintaining our health. But it’s an important one and can positively impact other areas of our health. And it’s something over which we have control.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association recommend for all ages, and particularly for people as they age, incorporating four types of exercise for a healthy workout routine:
- Aerobic, endurance, or cardio exercise – Endurance activity keeps your heart, lungs and circulatory system healthy and improves your overall fitness. Oxygenated blood is pumped by the heart to deliver oxygen to working muscles. Aerobic exercise stimulates the heart and rate of breathing.
- Examples of aerobic or endurance exercises include:
- Recommended frequency – 3-5 times per week for 20-30 minutes
- Examples of aerobic or endurance exercises include:
- Strength exercise – Strength or resistance exercise is any form of exercise that forces your skeletal muscles (not the involuntary muscles of your heart, lungs, etc.) to contract. External resistance (such as heavy weights) is used to cause muscle contractions, and those contractions lead to increases in muscular mass, strength, endurance, and tone.
- There are three basic types of resistance exercise:
- Bodyweight – This uses only your body weight to force your muscles to contract. It includes exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and squats.
- Free Weights – Using dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells helps to increase the strain placed on your muscles, forcing those contractions and building muscle. Free weight training is considered the most effective form of resistance exercise, as it engages secondary muscles (stabilizers) and leads to more effective muscle growth.
- Weight Machines – Every gym has dozens of weight machines. Weight machines are not as effective as free weights, but they are a safer alternative for those who are new to resistance training.
- Flexibility exercise – Flexibility exercises stretch your muscles and can help your body stay flexible. These exercises may not improve your endurance or strength, but being flexible gives you more freedom of movement for other exercise as well as for your everyday activities.
- Flexibility exercises include yoga and Pilates, as well as simple muscle stretches.
- Recommendation: Stretch the major muscle/tendons each time you exercise; hold each stretch 10-30 seconds. Repeat 3 to 4 times.
- Balance exercise – Balance exercises improve your ability to control and stabilize your body’s position. The benefits of doing balance exercises include: preventing falls, reducing the risk of lower-extremity injury (e.g., knee and ankle), improving proprioception (the ability to know where you are in space).
- Many balance exercises can easily be done at home and include:
- Shifting your weight from side to side
- Standing on one foot
- Walking heel to toe
- Using a balance board or stability ball
- Yoga, Pilates, and tai chi are also excellent ways to maintain and improve balance.
Thanks for muscling through (no pun intended!) this long post. I hope you found it valuable and are able to take some of the suggestions and develop a new or renewed routine. Of course, fitness includes other aspects in addition to exercise. Diet, stress, and illness, to name some, affect our overall health. Still, keeping our bodies strong to the best of our abilities is definitely an ingredient to good health and a satisfying life. It really makes a difference in ways that are much more important than just how we look.
I’ve been sitting at the computer for way too long. I’m going to go walk Lucy now. Have a wonderful (and active) weekend!