How to Exercise as You Grow Older

When was the first time you asked yourself, “Am I getting old?” Was it that time you felt your heart beating faster as you climbed the stairs? Or the time your legs began to shake just carrying the grocery bags from the car? Or when your joints and muscles felt stiff when you woke up one morning?

Many changes associated with aging mimic changes associated with reduced fitness. Examples include body composition shifts, reduced bone density and reduced muscular and cardiovascular fitness.

While some of these changes are inevitable, many are related to changes in lifestyle, in particular to reduced physical activity, which often occurs as we age.

Although we cannot turn back the hands of time, perhaps we can slow them down just a bit.

Our Bodies, Ourselves—And How Physical Activity Help

Body composition changes, including reduced muscle mass and increased fat mass (the “evil spread”), are due in part to a decrease in metabolic rate that comes with age. In addition, by the middle of the third decade, we lose on average about 1 percent of bone mass per year, contributing to reduced bone density and osteoporosis.

Activities that can most affect body composition are those that can be performed for relatively long durations and thus burn calories. Walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, rowing and the like—these so-called large-muscle-group activities fall into this category. Bone density and metabolic rate are influenced most through weight-bearing activities such as walking and jogging, while non-weight-bearing activities such as cycling and swimming may not be as helpful. Weight training assists in maintaining metabolic rate, muscle mass and bone density. The feeling of “stiffness” associated with reduced joint flexibility or range of motion is also found with advancing age. A flexibility routine should include slow, static stretching from head to toe and can be practiced on your own or in a group yoga, tai chi or other program that emphasizes pain-free movements that go through the range of motion of each joint.

Reduced cardiovascular fitness and being unable to perform work and activities of daily living without rapid heart rate and disproportionate increases in breathing are also associated with aging. In short, things that used to be easy to do like climbing stairs and mowing the lawn now seem harder. The large-muscle-group activities mentioned above will likely have the most benefit to maintaining cardiovascular fitness. It should be noted, however, that a stronger person will be able to do more work with less output of energy, so do not neglect strength-training exercises. In fact, many activities of daily living are more affected by muscular strength and flexibility than by cardiovascular fitness.

Remember to consult your physician to assess the impact of increasing physical activity levels on control of your blood glucose levels. Also consider having several sessions with a qualified personal trainer to get you started.

So, get active, stay fit, have fun—and see you at the gym!

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