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Exercise: It's easier than you think

Created date

May 30th, 2009

Gladys, age 75, is putting on her workout clothes. She dons comfortable pants, shoes, shirt, a hat, and completes her outfit with a nice pair of gardening gloves. Gardening gloves? What kind of a workout is Gladys planning? Quite a good one, in fact. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine, gardening is a recommended physical activity for older adults who want to maintain good health. Research supports the heart-healthy benefits of at least 30 minutes a day of gardening, and the popular activity has also been shown to help beat depression. And because Gladys has found an activity she enjoys, she is motivated to continue her physical fitness program. Becoming motivated in the first place, however, is not easy. According to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, there was no significant change in the percentage of older people engaged in physical activity between 1997 and 2006, despite a wealth of knowledge and research that supports benefits of physical activity. A lack of motivation could be one reason. One British study showed that people who have negative motivation (motivation driven by guilt, fear, or regret) tend to slip back into their old unhealthy ways. On the other hand, people who have positive motivation ("I will have more energy to play with my grandkids if I walk every day.") tend to stick with their chosen program. Find your motivation If negative thinking motivates you, identify some personal, positive reasons to keep going. At least commit to a temporary goal: Some research suggests that doing something (especially an activity or exercise) every day for 90 days helps to ingrain it as a habit. It s never too late to start. Any exercise that promotes strength, balance, stretching of your muscles, and endurance can add years to your life. Some activities, however, are more age-friendly than others walking, for instance, or playing with grandchildren. Water activities don t stress joints and are particularly good for people with arthritis or muscle stiffness. There are even fitness centers that have equipment specifically designed for older adults with features like easy-to-read display panels; wide, comfortable seats; slow starting speeds; and even low-resistance strength-training equipment that uses hydraulics instead of heavy weights. Some fitness centers also offer age-friendly classes like chair aerobics or tai chi. ' Take inventory ' You might already be more active than you think. Buy a pedometer to measure your number of walking steps each day, and aim for 10,000. Walking is an easy, low-tech way to get fit, but there are also high-tech options like activity-focused video games. Or try fun and social activities like square dancing, ballroom dancing, or community volunteering opportunities that involve physical activity (like park cleanup). Always talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program, especially if your daily functioning has been affected by a lifetime of inactivity or a disease process. "The only circumstance in which I would suggest that someone refrain from exercise is if it causes pain," says Tom Morris, D.O. " No pain, no gain does not apply in this case." ' Components of a good program ' "A good program includes cardiovascular [aerobic] activity, resistance training, flexibility, and a balance component," says Kimberly Jordan, rehabilitation manager at Greenspring, an Erickson-built and -managed community in Springfield, Va. Cardiovascular or aerobic activity is brisk physical activity that requires your heart and lungs to work harder. It keeps your heart in shape and revs up your metabolism. Resistance training is not necessarily strenuous weight-lifting. "Resistance training is for building muscle and bone strength, and can be especially beneficial if you have osteoporosis or are prone to the disease," Jordan says. "Use something as simple as a soup can or elastic therapeutic bands that are available in many stores." Flexibility (stretching) exercises help keep you limber by stretching the muscles and the tissues that hold your body s structures in place. Find out from your doctor what kind of stretching exercises are best for you. "Although some research indicates that stretching your muscles doesn t necessarily prevent injury, I still think it s a good idea for older adults," says Morris. Keep in mind that some days will be better than others. Even if yesterday you were able to do ten minutes of activity, today you may only be able to do five minutes. It s normal for your tolerance to fluctuate. ' Don t forget balance ' With aging comes a decreased sense of balance. Many medical conditions, general weakness due to inactivity, changes in your muscles, or other factors can contribute to a lack of balance. Improving your balance may help you prevent falls and fractures, a major cause of death and disability. "For most balance activities, it s best to see a rehabilitation specialist through a medical center-affiliated rehabilitation department or a wellness center," Jordan says. "Balance activities can be simple, or they can be more advanced requiring supervision and/or a partner." "I d recommend balance training for everyone not just those who are at risk for falling," says Morris. Even if you are a lifetime non-exerciser in good health, starting now can make you more resilient to illness, injury, or surgery in the future. Consider it an investment in your continued good health. "If I could give people one piece of advice, it would be to exercise," says Morris. "Doctors can work with fitness specialists to develop an individualized program for just about anyone."