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Exercise: The Fountain of Youth for Older Adults

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2a889c5a9dd97a4adecc6080b57990cd_w640Flash back to your junior high history class. Remember the 16th century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León who searched for the legendary Fountain of Youth? Well, here we are almost 500 years later, and we’re still looking for a magic way to slow the aging process. As an exercise physiologist who works with older adults at BethanyVillage, I can tell you that regular exercise is about as close as we’ve come to finding a way to build strength, preserve flexibility and boost vitality.

Although we often associate exercise with weight control, its benefits go way beyond helping to keep pounds off. Your body loses 20% to 40% of its muscle tissue as you age. Strength training (working with weights) and stretching help preserve muscle and can build more. Aerobic exercise – the kind that gets your heart rate up – can also protect against diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and even depression.

The good news is it’s never too late to start exercising! If you can move, you can exercise. Here are five tips to get started:

1. Start small. If you jump into a vigorous routine expecting to exercise for 30 minutes on the first day, two things are likely to happen: first, you might injure yourself because your body is not used to such intense activity and second, you’ll probably burn out and give up before you have a chance to make exercise an integral part of your lifestyle. Start with something mild and simple such as walking or stretching for just five or 10 minutes. Gradually increase time and intensity. Just walking around your house a few minutes several times a day is a good place to start. Research shows that even small increases in exercise can have dramatic results.

2. Choose something you like. If you choose an activity you enjoy, you will stick with it. Do you think you’d like to do some strength training using weights? Start by using a couple of soup cans as weights and see if you enjoy “pumping iron.” Strength training is great for improving balance and preventing falls. Also choose a time of day you like. If you are not a morning person, don’t tell yourself you are going to get up a 5 a.m. to exercise. You won’t do it and “failing” does nothing but create unnecessary stress.

3. Find an exercise buddy. Maybe you like walking on a treadmill while watching TV. For example, a lot of people watch the morning or evening news while on the treadmill. For others, it’s more fun — and encouraging! — to exercise with a friend or in a group. And for older people who live alone, it’s safer, too.

4. Breathe, talk, drink. Holding your breath during exercise affects your blood pressure – and not in a good way. Use the “talk test” when you are exercising to gauge intensity: if you can’t talk, you are working too hard. It’s also important to drink enough fluids while exercising – even if you are not thirsty. Dehydration can interfere with your heart function, your body temperature and your muscle function.

5. Consult a professional. If you are going to embark on an exercise program, be sure to ask your doctor if there are any movements you should avoid. For example, people with hip problems are usually advised to avoid kicking legs out to the side and crossing one leg in front of the other. Before attempting strength training, consult with a personal trainer or exercise physiologist for a program and instruction on the safe and effective way to lift weights. If you develop a symptom while exercising – for example, rapid or fluttering heartbeat – stop immediately and consult your doctor. 

Do you take a daily walk? Share your comments below about your exercise activities.

Written by Bethany Village

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