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The ABCs of exercise

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August 21st, 2012

Everyone knows that exercise helps you all over, but some people shy away from the very thought or think it only involves a tough workout at the gym and sore muscles. So you may find yourself becoming less active as you age. That s the opposite of what you should do, says Alice Bell, PT, DPT, GCS, a geriatric clinical specialist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. If you want to be healthy, you have to speed up, not slow down.

Activity is crucial

As we age, we lose strength, power, and muscle mass more quickly, so the consequences of inactivity become greater as the years roll by, Bell says. At the same time, the rewards are also greater if you start exercising now. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that for your best health you should participate in 150 minutes of physical activity each week. This time should be spent on moderate to vigorous exercise for aerobic conditioning, Bell explains. But seniors should add two days a week of strengthening exercises and also do things that improve balance and flexibility. Quite a tall order. But it may be easier than you think.

A gradual start

Start slowly and set small goals. The danger of doing too much too fast is that you may feel worse instead of better after you exercise, Bell says. Try ten-minute increments at first. That doesn t mean you have to be doing the same thing during that ten-minute period, Bell explains. For instance, you can go directly from one moderately strenuous household chore to the other. Every little bit counts. I tell my patients to do as much as they can, says Eugenio Machado, M.D., medical director at. target="_blank">Riderwood, an Erickson Living community in Silver Spring, Md. Research shows that people who have worked up to only 50 minutes weekly have measurable health benefits, Bell says. With whatever you re doing, you need to feel that you are working somewhat hard, but not that you are pushing yourself to the maximum level, Bell says. For some people, walking slowly feels like a workout, while others may need to jog to feel that way. It s important to keep progressing, she adds. If you do the same thing day after day, your body may adapt. If you feel like you can do more, then you should.

Work those muscles

Most seniors over 65 have lost about 40% of their strength if they haven t done anything to mitigate it, Bell says. But you don t necessarily have to lift weights to strengthen your muscles. You can do modified squats from a chair, wall push-ups, or even stand on your toes while holding on to something sturdy. If you are working your muscles for strength, take a day of rest afterward, Bell advises. In fact, your day of recovery allows your muscles to rebuild and become stronger. It s important to keep moving on those days, though take a walk or do whatever you normally do.

Balance and flexibility

Balance is important because a fall can be very costly to your health. The CDC reports that each year, one in three adults over age 65 falls. That rate is higher after age 75. When you work toward your 150 minutes and strengthen your muscles, you automatically improve your balance, Machado says. Tai chi may also help some people. Other balance-improving techniques include backward or sideways walking or walking on your toes. There are also classes you can take that are specifically designed help your balance. Look for a program that has standardized exercises that have been proven to prevent falls, Bell says. Many Erickson Living communities offer structured balance programs through on-campus wellness centers. If you are doing aerobic activity, muscle strengthening exercises, and practicing balance, then you are also increasing your flexibility. Stretching is a way to enhance that. It increases blood flow to your muscles and helps your joints move around more. Try basic yoga classes or simply put yourself through a daily stretching routine. Stretch your whole body and then focus on each individual part.

Getting some help to begin

Unless you have questions or concerns about increasing activity or trying something new, you don t necessarily need to see your doctor before you start an exercise program, Machado says. If, however, you feel you need help learning the best program for you, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy. Physical therapists help you understand how your health affects your physical fitness and can teach you a safe, effective, and enjoyable activity program, Bell says. Participating in a physical therapy program can help you gain confidence in your ability to exercise. Finding something you enjoy is essential if you want to stick with it. But the very first step, Bell says, is to get up and move.

Where to find more exercise tips

American Physical Therapy Association (apta.org) Find information and helpful videos about fitness, balance, and bone health at APTA s Fitness Across the Lifespan page: moveforwardpt.com. National Institute on Aging Check out the free Workout to Go brochure, which has 13 exercises you can do anywhere, anytime: http://go4life.nia.nih.gov.

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