"Move it or lose it," the old saying goes. In your youth, you probably exercised on a regular basis by riding a bicycle, running, dancing, swimming, playing baseball, and participating in numerous other activities. As you matured, however, career and family responsibilities may have curbed your exercising, and now you may not have moved it for a few years.
But as you age, exercise should be at the top of your "to do" list. Why? You'll be healthier, your brain will be sharper, you'll be happier, and you'll live longer. Numerous studies have shown all of these benefits — and more.
Even if you're out of shape and haven't exercised in years, it's never too late to get started.
"Exercise is important for almost everyone," said Dr. Keith Veselik, director of primary care at Loyola University Health System and associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "There are very few medical conditions that exercise won’t benefit. In fact, I sometimes write a prescription to get my patients to start taking this seriously and help them understand exercise can be just as helpful as medication," he said.
"Around age 35 is when our muscle mass and resting metabolism starts to decrease," he said. "When this happens our bodies require more, not less exercise to manage our caloric intake. When this starts to happen we can eat the same things, do the same things and may gain 3 pounds a year. That’s 30 pounds in a decade.
"In my own life I’ve seen the benefits of exercising," Veselik said. "When that alarm goes off in the morning I want to just roll over, but I’ve seen such a positive change in so many ways. It can be difficult, especially at first, but the benefits truly outweigh the struggles," he said.
Dr. Veselik believes exercise programs should combine aerobic, strength training, and flexibility, and he recognizes that each decade, especially as we age, has its own challenges:
In Your 50s:
Muscle and joint aches and pains are becoming more obvious, said Veselik, so you may need to get more creative about getting enough cardiovascular exercise — which fights many diseases of aging including cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — if you're plagued with aches and pains. Exercising in a pool or riding a bike instead of running may get your heart rate up, but still be easy on your joints. If you decide to run, try to avoid hard surfaces, such as concrete, and be sure you have good running shoes that offer optimal support.
Back pain is another common complaint for people in their 50s, he says. "The best way to protect your back is to build strong core muscles and make sure you are lifting heavy objects correctly," said Veselik.
In Your 60s:
Focus on balance and strength as you enter your 60s. Bones aren't as strong as in earlier years, and breaking a hip can limit independence and even be deadly. Veselik suggests weight-bearing exercises to keep bone density strong along with balance and leg-strengthening exercises. If arthritis is a problem, try walking. "Some people forget that walking is a great form of exercise — just make sure you get your heart rate up," said Veselik. "Also, aquatic classes or swimming are a great way for people with arthritis or fibromyalgia to exercise."
In Your 70s and Beyond:
"The biggest worry I hear from my patients who are entering their 70s, 80s, and beyond is dementia," said Veselik. "The two most common forms are Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia." The only thing proven to prevent Alzheimer's, he says, is exercise. And exercise also fights risk factors for dementia such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
"Exercise is important, but it’s not the end all," he said. "It needs to be coupled with eating right and incorporating other healthy habits to lead to a better quality of life."
Don't forget to consult your doctor about your exercise plans, and if you're out of shape, take it slow. "Don't go from doing nothing to running a marathon," Vesalik said. "Talk to your doctor, ask about risk factors, and together create a plan that’s right for you."
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