As we get older, it becomes more difficult to be healthy. Time is working against us, and it takes work to be fit and healthy for those of us older than 40. But physical activity is perhaps one of the single most important factors to maintaining or even improving physical and mental fitness as we age. As a part of a daily routine, exercise improves your quality of life by allowing you to continue doing the things you enjoy most.
If you have never exercised, don’t worry! It’s never too late to enjoy the benefits of physical activity.
Regular exercise has long-term benefits, reducing the risk of developing diseases and disabilities that are common as people grow older. It also can reduce the risk of serious injury or death from accidental falls. Studies prove exercise also is effective at treating many chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and back pain. It can reduce menopausal symptoms for women, and it can help people with muscle weakness and balance problems that make it harder to move around and increases the risk of falls. Studies also show that regular exercise can help keep our brains healthy and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It also can delay the start of Alzheimer’s for people at risk for developing the disease or slow its progress.
This is why health experts recommend daily physical activity to help adults maintain their health from their 40s through their 100s. A mixture of endurance and strength activities provides the greatest benefits. Endurance activities, such as walking or water aerobics, and muscle strengthening activities, such as lifting light weights or climbing stairs, should total 150 minutes each week.
Don’t be alarmed if that number seems high. Start small and build up to it. Whether in shorter spurts of 10 minutes several times throughout the day or longer bouts of a specific activity on specific days during the week, many different types of activity count. (Always talk with your doctor before beginning any type of exercise activity.)
A balanced routine
Endurance activities increase your heart rate and breathing for an extended length of time and improve your fitness. This makes it easier to walk farther, faster and uphill and to participate in everyday activities such as gardening, house cleaning, playing a sport and playing with your grandchildren (which can sometimes seem like a sport). If you’re just getting started with endurance activities, gradually increase the duration of time you spend doing them. Make it your goal to build up to at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most or all days of the week.
It’s important to remember your muscles in your workout plan. Building your strength makes it easier to do everyday things like taking the stairs, getting up from a chair or out of bed, doing yard work, taking your dog for a walk or carrying groceries.
Both upper and lower body strength exercise are important. Upper body exercises will help you lift your grandchildren, while lower body exercises will improve balance and maintain your ability to get up from a crouching position, walk and move. These are critical to preventing accidental falls.
Work on strength exercises for all your major muscles groups two or more days per week, and work your way up to 30-minute sessions. Start out using your own body weight or very light weights, such as 1-pound dumbbells or even soup cans. Elastic resistance bands are also a great and portable way to build strength. Remember: Strength training should never hurt. Muscle soreness the next day is OK, pain is not.
Balance and flexibility are also important parts of an exercise routine. Balance will help you stand on your tiptoes to reach something on a high shelf, walk up and down stairs or on uneven surfaces without tripping and ride a bike. Stretches that improve flexibility will help you look over your shoulder while driving, make the bed and put on and tie your shoes.
Whatever your goals, be sure they are realistic and based on your personal health and fitness level. Check with your doctor to learn what level of physical activity is right for you. Physical, mental, social and emotional gains from physical activity will help you stay healthy and independent as you age. And — most importantly — have some fun with your fitness! Grab some friends and form a walking group, rake leaves with your neighbors, visit a park with your grandkids, ride bikes on the Greenbelt or visit your local community center. Involving other people in your activities will make them feel worthwhile and encourage you to do them more often.
You could even join Fit and Fall Proof, a free exercise program in Idaho specifically tailored to helping older adults remain active, independent and prevent falls. For more information, visit fitandfallproof.dhw.idaho.gov.
Elke Shaw-Tulloch, master of health sciences, is the state health officer and Division of Public Health administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Find out more about Department of Health and Welfare services at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.