Exercise plays a key role in maintaining an active, healthy life as we age.
You’re probably beginning to realize the only way to combat aging on a budget is to do all the things we’ve been told to do since childhood — eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep and hope our genetic background gives us an advantage. If there were a magic pill to accomplish the same thing, we’d all look like teenagers and be running marathons into our 70s, 80s and beyond.
When we talk about exercise, we’re not necessarily talking about weight reduction or even maintenance, though those are benefits of an active life. We’re talking about keeping our bodies moving, our cardio systems in shape, our muscles toned and joints flexible. We’re talking about kick starting our metabolism, despite what we’ve inherited, to keep our physical engines running efficiently. Again, if you’re a card-carrying member of the Couch Potato Society, it’s not too late and it’s not that tough.
While metabolism impacts our body’s ability to burn calories and, therefore, is a weight control factor, it’s good to understand how it works in terms of an exercise program. The basal metabolic rate, BMR, is a measure of the rate at which a person’s body burns calories, or energy, while at rest. Someone with a low BMR will burn fewer calories at rest than someone with a high BMR. As we age, our metabolism slows down, but regular exercise can speed it back up. Exercise burns more calories — think of it as consuming energy or fuel like a vehicle consumes gasoline — but the more physically fit we become through that exercise the higher our BMR. Also, those with more muscle and less fat will generally have a higher BMR. Muscles consume energy; fat just sits there.
If you’ve been fairly inactive, talk to your doctor before you start on even a gentle exercise regime.
We need to have a balanced exercise program, one that benefits the entire body. That balance exists between stretching, cardiovascular exercise and weight training. Each has a specific function. Stretching preserves mobility; cardio training gives you endurance and weight training keeps you strong.
The goal of stretching exercises is to work your muscles and joints through their full range of motion. Your body will be more supple and less prone to injury since your muscles and joints will be able to bend and twist, absorbing your daily activity. There are two types of stretching especially beneficial to older bodies.
Ballistic stretching is used by athletes to prepare them for dynamic movements. Before most track and field events, athletes will bounce up and down. While it might look like nervous energy to spectators, that bouncing is a form of ballistic stretching. That rapid movement promotes flexibility and warms up the muscles. Static stretching involves slow, controlled movements that gradually give the muscles full range. The muscle groups are eased into full extension and then held for 15 to 30 seconds. Basic yoga is a good example of static stretching.
Your stretching program should last from five to 15 minutes and precede any cardiovascular or weight training exercises.
The health benefits of cardiovascular exercise are well documented. Your muscles gain strength and maintain mass, you burn body fat, your energy level will stay high throughout the day, your blood pressure drops, your immune system improves and you’ll be protecting the body from stroke, hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis. And some days you may have to repeat those benefits to yourself as motivation to start moving–which is, basically, all cardio exercise entails.
The best exercises include power walking (which to start could just be walking as if you have an important place to go), jogging, swimming and cycling. The key is to get your heart rate up but still be able to carry on a conversation. Duration plays an important part in gaining the benefits of cardio exercise. If you have to start at just 15 to 20 minutes with the heart rate up, that’s good. Your goal should be to maintain that pace for up to 50 minutes, at least three times a day.
The final leg of this exercise stool is strength training. Gyms and health clubs have been dragging those clients who joined for aerobic training into the weight room for years. More recently, weight rooms have been identified as a great place to combat the aging process. Muscles burn calories and the body greatly benefits from a strong muscular structure. It’s a form of internal armor that protects our bones.
Unfortunately, the easiest way to get complete body strength training is in a gym. But, hand weights and exercise balls can accomplish the same thing. Again, the key is to start light and be consistent. Trainers can set up a routine that will be safe for you to follow. If you opt for doing this on your own, consider a few sessions with a trainer to get off to a good start. They will advise you to do your stretching and cardio first, then go to weight training and to work the upper body one day, the lower body the next. Muscle is built by a system of repair. You tear your muscles as you weight train. The increase in muscle mass and strength comes from the muscle repairing itself.
You’re probably not undertaking this program to enter a Mr. or Ms. Body Builder contest. Repetition rather than sheer weight is the key to long, strong and well-defined, but not bulky, muscles. Once you can do the maximum repetitions recommended by a trainer without effort or pain, then you can up the weight.
Aside from improved health, a strong, well-exercised body will keep you active and adventurous well into your older years.