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Exercise: The Real Fountain of Youth

Regular exercise can reduce the risk of chronic disease like heart trouble, diabetes, and even cancer. It also keeps you feeling and looking younger.

While the message about the importance of getting physical activity is clear, it's not getting through to the majority of older Americans. Only 11% of people age 65 or older that responded to a recent government survey, said they engaged in strength training two or more days each week (the recommended level to improve overall health and fitness).

According to the survey, published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 6% of respondents met the national objectives for engaging in both physical activity and strength training. “Minimal efforts for getting more physical activity offer big payoffs,” experts say.

"Many of the chronic health conditions we experience come from aging, but exercise can slow the onset of many of those conditions," says Colin Milner, head of the International Council on Active Aging (a trade association of more than 3,500 organizations, that specializes in senior fitness).

Need proof? Consider this: Starting at age 50, people begin to lose 12% of their muscle strength and 6% of their muscle mass every decade. Weight training can reverse these effects in a big way. “Two to three months of weight training three times a week can increase muscle strength and mass by one-third, making up for three decades of lost muscle strength and muscle mass,” stated University of Maryland kinesiologist Ben Hurley.

“It's never too late to start,” said Julie McNeney, vice president of education for the International Council on Active Aging. "You can be as fit as you want to be," McNeney said. “Of course,” she added, "you can't regain the strength you had when you were 18 or 19."  “Still,” she said, “seniors can run marathons and participate in the senior Olympic games. But they can also benefit from just getting up and being active through less strenuous activities such as gardening and walking.”

McNeney urges older adults to think about what their goals are and what being fit means to them. Whether your goal as an older adult is to run a marathon or lift groceries without straining a muscle, McNeney's advice is the same. Set realistic goals.

Dr. Jack Higgins is vice president for health promotion for Fifty-Plus Lifelong Fitness (an organization based in Palo Alto, California, devoted to the promotion of physical activity for adults at midlife and beyond). "Start slowly," he tells sedentary older adults, "Don't overdo it. Getting hurt stops you in your tracks."

The myth that fitness is for the young is gradually fading. "I think people are starting to understand you don't stop moving when you hit 40 or 50,” Higgins said. “Much of what happens with aging, and goes wrong with the body, is not due to wear and tear.”

According to Higgins and McNeney, anyone starting or resuming an exercise program should first get approval from their doctor. They offer a host of other tips and guidance to get and stay motivated, including the following:

  • The goal is to work up to a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week. If you're unsure of how much stamina you have, start out with walking as your primary exercise. Later on, you can add strength training, like weight machines or free weights. Get advice from a professional.
  • Don't neglect two other key aspects of fitness: flexibility (gained by stretching before and after exercise), and balance (crucial to prevent falling, especially as you get older).
    “With age, poor balance can make falls more common. Falling can result in painful and sometimes life-threatening hip fractures,” Higgins said. “Doing a few balance exercises daily can help. They can be as simple as holding onto a chair or a wall for stability, and then raising your legs, one after the other.”
    “Exercising in groups is especially motivating for seniors,” Higgins said. “That applies double to those who are social but reluctant to exercise.”
  • If the prospect of joining a gym is intimidating, consider doing other, less-structured activities, such as mowing the lawn or doing housework.
  • “Lastly, be sure to fit in activity throughout the day to get the recommended 30 minutes of activity,” said McNeney. If you watch two hours of TV a day, rather than sitting and watching the commercials or channel surfing, get up and walk around the house, up the stairs, or march in place," she said. "If you would do that within a two-hour [TV] session, you would accumulate the [recommended] 30 minutes."


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