When Jodi Davis travels across Michigan to promote walking for fitness, the idea is that she will inspire her audiences. And she does. After all, she lost 162 pounds by eating well and walking. But while Davis is inspiring people with her story, she herself is stunned by her fellow walking advocate, Ernie Harwell — the 91- year-old Hall-of-Fame baseball announcer jumps rope 300 times per day.
Lead a Balanced Life
Each year, according to the National Institute on Aging, more than 1.6 million older Americans go to the emergency room because of fall-related injuries. Balance exercises can help you prevent falls and avoid the disability that may result from falling.
Walking the Walk
Aging isn’t always fun. But, if you make a concerted effort to remain (or become) strong, fit and flexible as you grow older, it’s possible to forestall some of aging’s least pleasant effects and to enjoy aging much more than you might expect.
In fact, by following a smart exercise program, you may find that over time your health and capabilities improve, and you might discover that many of the ailments and limitations you’ve chalked up to aging aren’t inevitable after all.
The key is to find ways to be healthy that are easy to build into your routine and to sustain. That’s why Davis and Harwell advocate walking at www.walkytalk.com, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan-sponsored Web site.
“People have trouble believing that walking is enough for them to stay healthy or lose weight, but it is,” Davis says. “It doesn’t have to be too far. Make it something you enjoy, something you look forward to. I walked 22 minutes a day, and that’s all I needed.”
Calorie-burning, low-impact cardiovascular exercises such as walking can lead to lower cholesterol and a stronger heart, in addition to weight loss. Davis says she felt more energy within a week of adopting a weightloss program.
Keep in Step
A pedometer (step counter) can help you keep track of your daily activity levels, set goals and measure your progress. Most inactive people get fewer than 5,000 steps a day, and some get only 2,000 steps a day. Healthy adults who take 10,000 steps a day can be confident they’re getting an adequate level of endurance activity.
Add Resistance for Better Health
And while cardiovascular exercise is important, older people need to build muscle by adding resistance training (with weights or exercise bands) as well. That’s because strength training can help fight sarcopenia (age-related loss of muscle mass, strength and function). Sarcopenia affects everyone, to varying degrees, and most people lose 1% to 2% of their muscle mass per year after age 50. The impact is most pronounced in sedentary people.
“If you’re physically active, you give yourself a much better chance of slowing those effects,” says Donato Rivas, a postdoctoral associate in the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
Skeletal muscle is critically important to the body’s overall health. Muscles don’t only provide strength, they consume and process nutrients that the body takes in, such as glucose and fat. “If you have less muscle mass, your body has less ability to use the nutrients that are introduced,” Rivas says, so the unused nutrients are stored as fat.
Get a Strong Advantage
Even a small change in muscle strength can make a difference in your day-to-day ability to function. But building muscle doesn’t require a trip to the gym. While lifting weights may be the most common form of strength training, you can use resistance bands or even household objects to provide the resistance your muscles need.
Make a Joint Effort
Resistance exercises are most effective at building muscle and counteracting the muscular atrophy associated with aging. But because joints also become more brittle and inflexible with aging — particularly for sedentary people — aggressive, high-impact exercises can lead to injury. So it’s important to use good form and not try to do too much, too soon. For that reason, it can be helpful to begin a workout routine under the supervision of a professional trainer.
Chicago trainer Clint Phillips, owner of www.FitChicago.com, has trained clients ranging from seniors to soldiers. Not surprisingly, his workout plan for aging adults is quite different from the regimen he used when he trained soldiers from the U.S. Army to compete as long-distance runners. But he still works his senior clients hard. Here are some of the principles he employs:
Start slow. If you’re going to start walking for exercise, for example, start by counting your steps, not your miles. Phillips suggests starting with a 15- or 20-minute outing.
“Then you listen to your body. If you’re not too sore, try a little more next time — go a little longer, or if you’re on a treadmill, try going uphill,” Phillips says.
But if you are sore, choose a distance that you’ll be able to repeat. For instance, one of Jodi Davis’ friends began his walking routine with a trip to the end of his street. “He caught his breath and said he’d do it again the next day, which is the important thing,” Davis says.
Stretching or flexibility exercises can give you more freedom of movement and make everyday activities such as getting dressed and reaching for objects on a shelf easier.
Focus on the trouble spots. “Older people tend to have problems with their backs and knees, and often people develop those back problems because their abdominal muscles aren’t strong enough and their hamstrings are too tight,” Phillips says. To combat those issues, Phillips has his clients stretch their hamstrings and work the muscles in their lower backs with dead lifts — exercises where weights are lifted off the floor from a bent-over position. With all exercises, it’s important to use proper form and warm up beforehand. If your workout includes both a cardiovascular and a strength-training component, Phillips recommends beginning with cardio and then stretching before working with weights.
Eat well. That doesn’t just mean eating healthy foods, it means making sure you are eating enough — especially protein. It’s crucial to building muscle that you consume enough calories and nutrients.
“Your body is in a constant state of remodeling,” Phillips says. “Your muscles need protein on a frequent basis, and your body needs amino acids [the building blocks of protein] for other functions like producing insulin, enzymes, hemoglobin and collagen. If you don’t take in enough protein so that these amino acids are circulating in your blood, then your body will cannibalize its own muscle tissue. The goal is to make sure we’re always building muscle and not tearing it down.”
Get More Out of Life
Not everyone will be able to jump rope 300 times daily like 91-year-old Harwell. But if you adopt a sustainable, enjoyable exercise regimen and stick with it, you may find that you become more athletic, healthy and painfree than you thought possible.
“People wonder, ‘If I’m already tired, how will I have more energy by walking around outside?’ Well, you will,” Davis says. “Your head will be clearer, you’ll be healthier and you’ll be happier.”