By Eli Follick
Before I begin to describe the how and why of exercise, I caution you to check with your physician and make sure he or she agrees that you are ready and able and that nothing you intend to include in your daily regimen will be harmful to you. It’s easy to get excited about adding a healthful aspect to your wellness journey and then possibly overdoing it or expecting too much, too quickly.
This brings us to mindset and mindfulness. Whatever you do to change habits or add a habit to your daily life requires a slow and steady set of steps. Making a plan with unrealistic goals does nothing more than to discourage you, and then you give up. You blame yourself for failing and quickly revert to the actions – or inaction – that created the problems requiring healthful solutions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the whys of exercise are easy. Exercise can improve brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities. Exercise also helps to lower blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. It helps to prevent or manage diabetes. It reduces the risk of developing some common cancers. It plays a role in increasing your chances for living longer. Properly conducted, exercise can help eliminate constipation, reduce pain and improve function, mood, and quality of life for those with arthritis.
If you have a specific challenge facing you, you would do well to research what the best sets of exercises are for your needs. Other helpful sources of information include the American Physical Therapy Association and the National Institute on Aging.
The American Heart Association and a number of other authoritative organizations have suggested that 150 minutes a week of exercise is the minimum necessary to fulfill the needs of a successful journey to health. They define exercise as activities that increase heart rate and breaths per minute. While good for you, a slow walk around the neighborhood would not fit that bill.
The minimum exertion requirement works out to 30 minutes a day, five days per week. If that is too much for you to begin with, you can split it up to five or 10 minutes at a time and gradually work your way up to 30 minutes a day. You need to start where you are and do what you can. If you keep at it, doing things you enjoy, you will succeed in time. Don’t forget to reward yourself when you hit your successive targets.
Now that you know the “whys,” let’s examine the “hows.” The National Institute on Aging categorizes healthy exercises into four types – endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.
Endurance exercises help increase your breathing and heart rates, thus improving the health of your heart, lungs, and circulatory systems. Physical activities that build endurance include brisk walking or jogging, yard work (mowing and raking), dancing, swimming, biking, climbing stairs or hills, and playing tennis or basketball. Any of these will help to increase your “staying power,” enabling you to keep up with your grandchildren during a trip to the park, for example. Dancing at a family wedding, planting a vegetable garden, or participating in “walking club” activities, too, become easier.
Do a little light activity such as easy walking before and after to warm up and cool down. Listen to your body, as these activities should not cause dizziness or pain. Stop and rest. Don’t overdo. Start at a point that you can handle without any difficulties. Be sure to drink water even when you don’t feel thirsty. And, to prevent injuries, wear any necessary safety equipment.
Improving muscular strength can help you stay independent and may make everyday activities easier. Being a bit stronger can help with balance and prevent falls. You are less likely to fall when your leg and hip muscles are strong. Climbing stairs and carrying groceries or grandchildren are less of a challenge. Some types of strength exercises include lifting weights, gripping a tennis ball, arm and leg curls with weights, wall push-ups, and resistance band exercises.
Start gradually, perhaps using light weights at first. Grasp a can of vegetables in each hand and do five to 10 lifting repetitions. Gradually progress to heavier weights and more repetitions until you can do two sets of 10-15 repetitions easily. Try to involve all of your major muscle groups at least twice a week. Separate muscle group activities so you give your muscles a chance to rest.
Don’t hold your breath during strength exercises and breathe regularly. Breathe out as you lift or push, and breathe in as you relax. Remember, this process does not result in instant improvement, but if you should stick with it, you are likely to sense positive changes all along the way.
Balance exercises help prevent falls, a common problem for seniors that can have serious consequences. Many lower-body strength exercises also will improve balance. Some balance exercises include tai chi, standing on one foot, doing the heel-to-toe walk, and standing up from a seated position.
A few safety precautions include having a sturdy chair nearby to hold on to if you feel unsteady and exercising on a soft mat such those used for yoga. Wear well-fitting but loose clothes and shoes or sneakers that have a bit of grip on the ground. This may sound silly, but after you feel that you know what you are doing, try brushing your teeth while standing on one foot. It took me more than a year to master that trick.
Stretching can improve your flexibility. The ability to move more freely will make it easier for you to reach down to tie your shoes or pick up a dropped spoon. It will be simpler for you to look back over your shoulder when you back your car out of the driveway. Some flexibility exercises include the back stretch, the inner thigh stretch, the ankle stretch, and the hamstring stretch.
Be sure to stretch when your muscles are warmed up, as well as after endurance or strength exercises. Don’t stretch so far that it hurts, and breathe normally while holding a stretch.
How to Cope with Challenges
Some people do not like or do not want to exercise for their health. The problems encountered and the excuses are many, but all of them have possible solutions or work-arounds. The one I hear very often is, “I don’t have time to do 30 minutes a day.” As I alluded to before, if you can’t spare the 30 minutes, break the time up into smaller segments. If you can do five or 10 minutes at a time a few times a day, it all adds up to success soon enough.
You can park your car further away from the door and walk the length of the parking lot at a rapid pace. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Get off the bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way. Walk around the supermarket at a rapid pace. You know where most of the products you want to buy are, so make it a twofer by doing your shopping and getting some exercise in the mix. Before or after lunch, you can try for a short walk at a brisk pace.
Believe you are stuck inside at home because of the weather? Make that time work for you by briskly doing the vacuuming or floor mopping. You can do floor exercises on your soft carpet in the living room. Climb up and down the steps to your second floor.
Some people also find exercise to be boring. If you are among them, try different activities like going to a dance or playing with the grandchildren. Join a yoga group in person or online. When you are watching TV, stand up and march in place or around the room. Even while sitting, you can use one of those easily available stretch bands to do an assortment of upper body and leg exercises.
I make it a personal challenge to my creativity to move as much as possible. For example, when I answer the phone, I stand and walk around. Why waste time and opportunity when you can be doing something good for yourself. It really does add up.