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How to exercise and stay fit when you're a senior

It'll just require a few tweaks to your exercise routine to stay in shape as you get older

I think it started about a decade ago when a lot of people starting using the whole “30 is the new 20, 40 is the new 30” rationale, and to this day it’s hard to determine if this reasoning was developed to encourage others to feel younger or to help them get over their fears of getting older.

But the question is, where does this fear really come from?

Is it because age reminds us of our mortality and reminds us that we actually won’t live forever, despite new medical findings and our increased efforts to stay healthy?

Or is it television shows, movies and the rest of the media that places that fear in some of us by mainly putting young and attractive people on the airwaves, and almost dictating to viewers what the standard of beauty and importance is?

It’s hard to pinpoint what the exact reason is, but getting older isn’t as celebrated here in the United States as it is in other cultures around the world, which is unfortunate, because as many know, getting older presents an opportunity to navigate through life without a lot of inexperience and guessing. I mean, you’re always able to enjoy your navigation more if you don’t have to fumble around with a big old map to learn your way.

Keep it moving

So what’s the best way to enjoy that level of experience and knowhow to the fullest as you get older?

One way is to stay active through exercising says Janie Clark, M.A., who authored several books on senior fitness and is the president of the American Senior Fitness Association, an organization that provides older adult fitness specialists with training, educational programs and certifications.

She says before seniors begin their exercise routine it’s important they consult their physicians first.

“To get started, an older adult should consult with his or her physician and obtain medical clearance to exercise,” said Clark in an interview with ConsumerAffairs. “The doctor can provide personalized advice, including dos and don’ts specific to the individual’s health status.”

In addition, older adults should be particularly mindful to pace themselves so they don’t risk getting injured, Clark says.

“Seniors beginning a new exercise program after a long period of being sedentary should avoid certain pitfalls,” she advises.

“First, don’t overdo it in an overabundance of enthusiasm. Injuries take longer to heal as we age, and injured senior exercise participants often wind up dropping out permanently. Also, don’t just reinstate an old calisthenics routine that you recall from many years ago when you were in school or in the military. Up-to-date fitness programs are more beneficial and less likely to lead to injury.”

And a common injury among seniors who exercise is damaging the back, Clark says, so it’s important to choose routines that don’t cause strain.

“Do be careful with your back,” she says. “Older exercisers can ask too much of their backs, sustaining soreness and strain. For example, avoid exercises that feature jerky movements involving the spine, including the neck.”

Fitness pro

Clark says that having access to a trained senior fitness professional can make all the difference when it comes to tailoring workouts and they can make sure each routine meets the needs and interest of each individual, so exercise remains fun, but challenging, varied but consistent--which is needed for most people to stay motivated.

Furthermore, Clark says that seniors can either choose to do many different workouts or stick with just one depending on the individual, but again, consulting both your physician and a trained senior workout professional is advised before making your decision.

And if you’re still undecided, you can simply put on your sneakers and go for a stroll, if you’re able to, which can do wonders for both your physical and mental state, Clark explains.

“Older adults should follow an exercise program that includes cardiovascular work, strength training, stretching and balance activity,” she says.

“A trained senior fitness professional can design such a plan, taking into account the participants interests, likes and dislikes. There are also many responsible community exercise programs and DVD workouts conducted by qualified senior fitness professionals that may be appropriate.”

“It is fine to stick with one safe and effective program if it continues to feel rewarding and fulfilling to the participant. A good program will allow for progression as the participant gets fitter. On the other hand, many exercisers enjoy cross-training to prevent boredom. Cross-training also has the advantage of working the muscles in different ways.”

“All that being true, if individuals will not do anything else, they definitely should walk if they can; walking regularly at an energetic pace can confer many physical and mental health benefits,” says Clark.

Lacking motivation

But if you’re a child of a senior and you have a parent that lacks the motivation to exercise, what do you do? Because we all know that not wanting to exercise happens to all of us, not just older adults.  

Clark says there are several ways to motivate your parents, but each method is based on a consistent level of support, as opposed to coming down on them.

And oftentimes by exercising along with your folks you’ll be able to give that additional push they might need, since leading by example trumps any speech or reminders that you could give them.

“The adult children of senior citizens can promote physical activity in several ways,” states Clark.

“Talk to your parents about the short-term and long-range benefits of exercise (e.g., respectively, feeling more self-confident and maintaining a high quality of life into old age.) Consider supporting the idea with suitable fits such as comfortable exercise clothing and shoes, easy to follow DVD workouts, and inexpensive exercise accessories such as resistance bands or light-weight dumbbells.”

Additionally, “Make exercise a family activity; for example, invite your parent to go for a walk or a swim and try to make it a regular date. If you can accompany your parent to his or her medical check-up, ask the doctor to weigh in on the advisability of staying physically active,” says Clark.

Successful survival

According to statistics released by the Harvard School of Public Health a few years ago the rate of “successful survival,” which is considered living over the age of 70 in relatively good physical and mental condition, almost doubled for seniors that started exercising ten to fifteen years prior, which shows the importance of getting an early start at developing that drive to exercise.

And even if you’re not one to head to the gym or develop an official workout routine, Clark says you can still get many of the benefits of exercising by just changing some of the things in your daily routine.

“One of the best ways to stay physically active is to make movement a regular part of everyday life,” she says.

“If you are able to take good care of a pet, get a dog. Dogs have a way of getting us out and about. Take walks together through your neighborhood, and if you let your dog out into the yard two or three times a day, don’t just stay in the house or stand motionless by the back door while your dog explores the yard. Instead walk around a little, pick up some twigs or wipe off the lawn chairs.”

“And if you’re meeting a friend for lunch, choose a restaurant close to a nice park and have a stroll together before or after dining," Clark said.

She says this same approach of fitting in exercise during your daily runs can be applied on your shopping trips and when you’re at home too.

“Instead of bee-lining for that parking space right at the store’s entrance, park in a more distant spot in the parking lot and walk briskly to and from the store,” she says.

Keep your balance

“While inside, walk all the aisles. You’ll gain a bit more exercise, and you’ll be less likely to forget an item you’d planned to pick up. While waiting in line to pay, fit in some balance work by alternately shifting your body weight from one leg to the other.”

“At home keep a pair of light-weight dumbbells beside the sofa where you sit to watch television so that you can do some arm exercises at the same time," she adds. "Stand up and walk in place during the advertisements [and] when talking on the phone, try standing and maybe even walking around instead of just sitting during the conversation.”

Spending time with your grandchildren is another excuse to get some fitness in, said Clark.

“When the grandchildren or great-grandchildren come to visit, it’s great to read to them and take them to a movie, but also try to include some physically active pastimes such as tossing a ball, playing crochet, picking and arranging flowers or playing carpet golf," she says.

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