Want to age gracefully? Keep moving. Regular
exercise can reduce the risk of chronic disease —
such as heart trouble, diabetes, even cancer - and
keep you feeling and looking younger as you age.
We all know how to come up with some pretty good
excuses but there is no reason that you couldn't
follow a work out program on your television right
in your living room. You're always going to find an excuse to not
work out. So find the excuse to start working out.
While the message is clear, it's not getting through to the majority of
older Americans. Only 11% of people aged 65 or older responding to a
government survey earlier this year said they engaged in strength training
two or more days each week, the recommended level to improve overall health
And only about 6% of the respondents met the national
objectives for engaging in both physical activity and strength training,
according to the survey, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
But minimal efforts at getting more physical activity
offer big payoffs, experts say. "Many of the chronic health conditions we experience
as we age come from disuse rather than aging, and exercise can retard the
onset of many of those conditions," says Colin Milner, head of the
International Council on Active Aging, a trade association of more than
3,500 organizations that specializes in senior fitness.
Need proof? Consider this: Starting at age 50, people
begin to lose 12% of their muscle strength and 6% of their muscle mass every
decade. But weight training can reverse these effects in a big way. Two to
three months of weight training three times a week can increase muscle
strength and mass by one-third, making up for three decades of loss of
muscle strength and muscle mass, said University of Maryland kinesiologist
And it's never too late to start, said Julie McNeney,
vice president of education for the International Council on Active Aging.
"You can be as fit as you want to be," McNeney said.
Of course, she added, "you can't regain the strength you had when you were
18 or 19."
Still, she said, seniors "can run in marathons, they
can participate in the senior Olympic games." Or they can just get off the couch and engage in less
strenuous pursuits such as gardening and walking, and reap benefits.
McNeney urges older adults to first think about what
their goals are, and what being fit means to them. "It could be as simple as being able to dress
themselves, or being able to stay in their home and be independent," she
said. They might just want to be fit enough to pick up and carry their young
grandchildren or play with them," she added.
Whether your goal as an older adult is to run a
marathon or lift groceries without straining, some of McNeney's advice is
the same: Set realistic goals.
Dr. Jack Higgins is vice president for health
promotion for Fifty-Plus Lifelong Fitness, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based
organization devoted to the promotion of physical activity for adults at
midlife and beyond.
"Start slowly," he tells older adults who have been
sedentary. "Don't overdo. If you get hurt, it stops you in your tracks."
The myth that fitness is for the young is gradually
fading, Higgins said. "I think people are starting to understand you don't
stop moving when you hit 40 or 50."
Quite the opposite, Higgins said. People who become
sedentary and put on weight as they age aren't only "cosmetically not
wonderful," he pointed out. They are also begging for problems with their
joints, and for developing diabetes and heart problems.
"Much of what happens with aging, what goes wrong
with the body, is due to under use rather than wear and tear," he said.
Anyone resuming or starting an exercise program
should first get a doctor's OK, agreed Higgins and McNeney. Beyond that,
they offer a host of other tips and guidance to get and stay motivated.
The goal is to work up to a minimum of 30 minutes of
exercise at least five days a week.
If you're unsure of how much stamina you have, start
out with walking as your primary exercise.
Later on, you can add strength training, such as
doing weight machines or free weights. Get advice from a professional.
And don't neglect two other aspects of fitness —
flexibility, gained by stretching before and after exercise, and balance,
crucial to prevent falling, especially as you get older.
With age, poor balance can make falls more likely,
and falls can result in painful and sometimes life-threatening hip
fractures, Higgins said. So doing a few balancing exercises daily can help.
They can be as simple as holding onto a chair or a wall for stability, then
raising one leg off the ground, then the other.
Exercising in groups is especially motivating for
seniors, Higgins said. That applies double to those who are social but
reluctant to exercise, he added.
If the prospect of joining a gym is intimidating,
consider doing other, less-structured activities, such as mowing the grass
or doing housework.
Finally, be sure to fit in activity throughout the
day to get the recommended 30 minutes of activity, McNeney said. "If you
watch two hours of TV a day, instead of sitting watching the commercials or
channel surfing, get up and walk around the house, up the stairs, or march
in place," she said. "If you would do that with a two-hour [TV] session, you
would accumulate the [recommended] 30 minutes."