Most of my readers know that I am a huge fan of exercise. But what about those among us who are not? Are you over 50, with an interest in making a change in your life and health? Here are a few clues about where to begin.You've heard this before. Our core muscles help us to keep our balance, and as we age, these core muscles weaken. This makes falling and breaking bones far more common. Exercise improves safe living by building these core muscles, which improves coordination and endurance, mobility, flexibility, and balance. It allows us to get out with friends and family in new and exciting settings. Exercise helps us to maintain or lose weight, increase energy, improve our heart health, strengthen bones, reduce the impact of illness and chronic disease, improve sleep, boost mood and help with self-confidence. It's good for the brain; slowing memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia. Have you heard (or used!) these common myths? "There's no point in exercising because I'll grow old anyway!" The act of exercising helps build strength and make us feel and look younger. Regular exercise lowers the risk for many conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, colon cancer, and obesity. "Elderly people shouldn't exercise because we need to save our strength!" Research shows that a sedentary lifestyle leads to less energy, and results in seniors having more hospitalizations, doctor visits, and using more medication. "If I exercise, I might fall down and hurt myself!" Regular exercise builds bones, muscles and stability, and therefore reduces the risk of falling. "It's too late to start now!" Research shows that we can start at any point, and receive many benefits. "I'm disabled and can only sit!" No worries here; there are sitting exercises that can improve muscle tone and promote cardiovascular health. What, then, is the best exercise program for you? The clear answer, of course, is the program you will stick with! How do you get there? If you are just starting out, consult with your doctor. Do you have chest pains or shortness of breath? Do you have a heart or lung condition, bone or joint problems, unexplained dizziness or fainting? Are you currently taking blood pressure or heart medication? Any of these need further evaluation before you embark on a new plan. Set realistic goals. What are your expectations? Where do your abilities lie? Is your goal to age gracefully and build your strength and energy, or is it to complete a triathlon? Choose an exercise plan that fits, being realistic with regard to your health and medical issues. If you have had a knee or hip replacement, for example, running may not be for you! Should you purchase equipment? There is a lot of good used equipment out there - just think of those exercise bikes that now serve as clothes hangers! Or, you may require just a sturdy armless chair and a few weights (two water bottles or soup cans will do in a pinch, or purchase some 2, 3, 5, and 8 pound weights). See that you have proper athletic shoes that offer good support, and comfortable, loose fitting clothing. Set up a schedule and stick to it! Begin slowly and build endurance from there. Ants make their ant hill one grain of sand at a time, and that's how you will build your endurance. Consistency is the key; figure out which days of the week will work for you, and what time of the day. We all know that the longer we stick to a schedule, the easier it gets. Set up safety guidelines in terms of pulse rates and respiration. Your doctor can help you with target numbers. Perhaps you will start with two days a week and increase a day at a time as endurance and comfort build. Ultimately, three to five days per week is ideal. The duration of a workout can be quite reasonable; thirty minutes may be a good daily goal. Try splitting your workout into three 10-minute segments, spaced throughout the day. Don't be in a hurry - start slowly and get used to it before increasing the time. Walking is a great exercise. It's low impact, can be done nearly anywhere, and doesn't require special equipment other than a good, well-fitting pair of walking shoes. If possible, find a walking partner. The motivation, comfort, and camaraderie will be a big motivation to stick with it. Riding a bike is terrific - if this is safe for you, it's a great cardiovascular exercise (and can even be done in your own living room!). Running is fantastic. It does, however, require good joints, especially the knees. The biggest roadblock is your own motivation. Let your personality guide you. If you are a sociable person who needs plenty of encouragement, running or walking may not be for you (unless you join a group). Consider group swimming, water aerobics, senior fitness, yoga or Tae-bo. Martial arts such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong can increase balance and strength. Check with your local YMCA or senior center for classes. Is there a sport that will keep you motivated, such as tennis or bowling? (My mother loves her bowling league and recently bowled 198 at age 85). Grab a friend and challenge each other to keep going. Always be on the lookout for ways to stay motivated: Listen to music while exercising. Window-shop while walking through the mall. Play a competitive game. Take photographs on a nature hike. Make new friends in an exercise class. Watch a great movie while on the treadmill. Avoid overexertion, and stop if you develop swelling, shortness of breath, dizziness, extreme tiredness or pain. Sudden intense exercise can be a challenge to the heart. As we age, an active lifestyle is more important than ever. Regular exercise can help boost energy, maintain independence, and manage pain or symptoms of illness. An active lifestyle will even reverse some of the signs of aging. It is clear that it is good for our mind, body, memory and even mood. Most importantly, let's enjoy ourselves. Life is short. Figure out what you enjoy and stick with it - and even better, do it with someone you care about. I challenge you to think about what forms of exercise will excite you. Staying active is probably the best predictor of successful aging, and that's a goal worth sweating for! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: May 9, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 04