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How to stay active as you get older

Aging Well | Exercise and Fitness | September 13, 2021
Woman and man exercise at home
Focus on a comprehensive physical activity program as you age.

We all get older. One of the most effective strategies for managing the aches, pains and other changes that come with age is a plan for staying active.

Lorne Bigley, MD, a family medicine physician at PeaceHealth in Eugene, Oregon, shared personal insights on the subject. “I wasn’t much of an exerciser early on, but when I turned 30, my daughter was born.  Something inside me kicked in and I realized I needed to stay fit to keep up with my kids.”

Numerous benefits to exercise

His belief in the power of exercise on health has only grown since then—and not only in his own life, but also in his patients. Dr. Bigley even presented a classic webinar on more than 20 benefits of exercise, all backed by numerous studies.

The big takeaway? Everyone can benefit from being active.

“As you age, be intentional about being physically active,” said Dr. Bigley. “Make it part of your everyday routine—every bit as much as your meals, hygiene or other habits to care for yourself.”

Know your "why"

Before you launch into an exercise program, be very clear with yourself about why…or what you want to get out of it.

Surprisingly, weight loss is not one of the “good” reasons to exercise, said Dr. Bigley. “Studies found that people would quit exercising if they were discouraged by not losing weight.”

Focus instead on more meaningful results:  less joint pain, better muscle tone, stronger bones, more reliable balance, feelings of increased productivity, enhanced creativity and lighter moods.

These translate into better, more vibrant living for what you need or want to do—from the everyday basics such as grocery shopping or cooking—to your beloved hobbies like gardening or golf—to “bucket list” dreams like a two-week trip to Italy.

Types of exercise to include

Once you’re clear about your why, create a comprehensive physical activity program for yourself that includes the following types of exercise:

  • Resistance or weight training. This builds muscle and joint stability. You can use rubber bands, free weights, barbells, medicine balls, sandbags, weight machines and even your own body for these exercises. Sit-ups, push-ups, lunges and squats are a few examples. Do weight training a couple of times per week.
  • Flexibility. This decreases stiffness, increases range of motion, reduces risk of injury and promotes circulation, among other things. Yoga, Pilates, toe touches, neck rolls and cow/cat stretches are a few examples. You can do these for a few minutes throughout the day, every day.
  • Aerobic. This gets your heart rate up. It improves lung function, decreases resting heart rate, lowers blood pressure and increases good cholesterol, among other things. If you’re protecting your joints, consider gentle activities like walking, cycling, swimming, cross-country skiing or bobbing on a rebounder (mini-trampoline). You can stick with one tried-and-true or switch up your activity of choice but aim to do this kind of exercise at least three times a week.
  • Balance. This helps you maintain equilibrium and avoid falls. Activities to improve your balance include tai chi, yoga, balance boards and weight-shifting exercises. Do simple balance exercises during your everyday habits—while brushing your teeth or waiting for the coffee to brew. Try to add a few minutes of more involved balance routines once or twice a week.

Variety works because it keeps you from getting bored and helps cover all the bases of what your body needs.

How often and how long to exercise

The goal is to be moderately active for at least 150 minutes per week. It’s better to spread this out over a few days, but do what works best for you.

“Avoid building up in your mind how difficult and burdensome exercise will be,” said Dr. Bigley. “It doesn’t have to be hard.” Talk yourself into just five minutes. More than likely you’ll go longer and feel really good about it.

Starting is the most important part. 

And speaking of starting...it’s never too late to start.

“I was at the gym a few years ago and saw a 92-year-old man working his quads on a weight machine. The man’s personal trainer told me his client had seen significant improvement in just three months. That always made an impression on me,” Dr. Bigley said.

Talk to your primary care provider about what they recommend for you when it comes to starting a comprehensive physical activity program.

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