I love Good News stories about older active people. Like the 90-something lady who goes to her local recreation center daily to swim, or another 90-something lady who is out and about every day running her ranch. These seem like unusual and admirable stories, but increasingly these women are the new norm of aging. They’re supporting quality of life by staying physically active.
Staying active is critically important for quality of life in aging. I’ve seen some graphs of muscle deterioration that are pretty sobering. When a person is incapacitated by illness, injury, or surgery, muscle loss starts immediately. It’s not dramatic; it’s slow and insidious. Once you’re back on your feet, you can rebuild muscle if you are persistent — boosting protein intake and exercising, so that muscles are stimulated to rebuild. But even then, it’s hard to get back to your previous muscle mass. If you experience another extended period of inactivity, you can lose what you just regained, and then some. Loss of muscle mass makes you feel weak and fatigued, so exercise becomes more difficult. It becomes a vicious cycle of muscle loss.
And it’s not just muscles that suffer. Physical activity is linked to better cognitive function, less inflammation, better heart health, improved blood pressure and better blood glucose control.
For too many older adults, lack of activity has nothing to do with injury or illness. It’s just a lifestyle. Perhaps it’s been going on for years. I remember some of my elderly relatives spending the last 15 or more years of their lives sitting, to their detriment. Eventually they could barely stand up. In your 60s and beyond, an inactive lifestyle accelerates muscle loss. You lose strength; you don’t have the energy or balance to be active, and that makes even the most basic activities more difficult.
Exercise is your job
I’d like to suggest that, in retirement, physical activity becomes your new job. It might not pay in cash, but it pays off in health and quality of life. I’m almost at the point of thinking daily physical activity is more important than a healthy diet. A healthy diet isn’t going to make up for the adverse impact of a sedentary lifestyle.
Does this mean everyone has to join a pricey gym or buy expensive exercise clothes? Or a fancy bicycle? Run marathons? NO.
It can be as simple as going for a walk every day. If you can incorporate walking into your daily routines, so much the better. After all, humans evolved to walk upright. Our muscles and bone structure are built for walking.
The Good News
Older adults have a wealth of opportunities for physical activity that simply didn’t exist for previous generations. Recreation centers, fitness clubs, gyms, YMCAs and senior centers are widespread. Many accept the extremely popular fitness memberships paid by some Medicare plans. It’s an insurance benefit that everyone should take advantage of. Movement, stretching, yoga, dance, sports and other classes are geared to all levels of ability. If you don’t like classes, use the exercise equipment. An acquaintance, in her late 60s, just took up rock climbing, on indoor climbing walls. You go girl!
If you need more inspiration for things to keep you active, here’s a partial list:
- jogging and long distance running
- bicycling (road, trail, gravel, mountain)*
- sports: golf, tennis, pickle ball, racquet ball, ping pong, basketball, volleyball, hockey, soccer, baseball…
- wimming, surfing and water aerobics
- dancing, from ballet to salsa, tango, ballroom, square, swing and line dancing
- fitness classes: yoga, pilates, stretching, barre, etc.
- weights and weight machines
- aerobic machines: stationary bikes, treadmill, stair climber, elliptical, rowing…
- martial arts, karate, self-defense, boxing
- horseback riding
- skiing: downhill, cross country
- snow shoeing
- ice skating/roller skating
I know I’ve left out some things, but look at that list! So many possibilities for staying active every day. Mix it up, so you don’t get bored with the same old thing. Take advantage of senior discounts and senior memberships to gyms. Adapt to seasons and weather with different options. Above all, choose activities you enjoy.
Balance is important
The only word of caution I have is to be aware of risk for falling. Staying active and maintaining muscle strength is critical for fall prevention. But other issues, like balance or certain medications, can raise you risk. Certain activities, such as yoga, can help with balance. If you have concerns, avoid activities with more risk for falling. Rock climbing comes to mind.
*Electric bikes are becoming very popular with older people. It’s easier to deal with hills or distances if you have a motor assist. Some people might think an electric bike is cheating, and that electric bikes don’t give you much exercise because the motor does all the work. In fact there’s some evidence that, because it’s easier to ride these bikes, people tend to ride them more often and longer distances. Result: they actually get more physical activity. The catch is that they’re not cheap.
Photos from Adobe Free Stock Photos