By Dr. Tom Bozzo
A new year is upon us and the majority of New Year’s resolutions are health related – with exercising being near the top of the list. Often however, these resolutions are abandoned before it is spring. Whether we decide to make a formal resolution or not, the new year can be a great time to take stock of where we are in life and readjust our goals.
Most of us understand that exercise is an important part of wellness with a myriad of benefits. However, how to get started, what to do, and where to do it can all be roadblocks to unlocking the benefits of exercise.
Today I’d like to speak a bit about activities that can promote health and wellness.
Broadly speaking, what type of exercise should people focus on as they age?
First and foremost, I would say that if someone already has physical activities that they enjoy, they should absolutely stick with them. It is a heck of a lot easier to remain active if you enjoy it. So if you are a walker, runner, cycler, swimmer, basketball player, or pickleball player then keep it up. If you used to enjoy any of those activities, then that is a good place to begin – just start easy and ramp up your time and intensity at the activities slowly. Remember to listen to your body.
Along those lines, I think you should exercise wherever you enjoy it most or wherever you feel most motivated. For me that’s being outside – ideally in a park or in the woods. Some people love the energy of being in a gym and still others like the comfort of their home. Find your spot – but don’t let travel or membership fees be an unnecessary barrier. Keep it simple.
If you have not been overly active or interested in exercise in the past, walking is a great first step (no pun intended). Walking regularly has huge health benefits. It is free and can be done anywhere. If nothing else, you can take steps in place or walk around your home. Find a routine and make it a part of your life.
When I think of exercise and young athletes, my brain goes first to cardiovascular exercise – meaning exercise that makes your heart and lungs work harder (gets your blood pumping). However, as we age exercises that promote strength and balance are likely even more important.
Why are strength and balance important to staying healthy as we age?
Frailty and falls can be debilitating as we age. Both are a product of father time. As we age, it is more difficult to maintain muscle mass. Muscles atrophy far more quickly when we are older. If a teenage runner takes a week or two off, they can jump right back in where they left off without missing a beat. If a 70-year-old runner was laid low with the flu for a week, it could take weeks to regain the muscle that was lost.
Which means if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it. Inactivity leads to frailty. Frailty makes it harder to be active (because it becomes difficult or starts to hurt) – and the frailty/inactivity cycle can snowball out of control.
Falls often result from balance issues. Balance is a function of muscle, nerves signals and vision – all of which tend to be impacted by age. Muscles atrophy, nerve signals can slow down from a host of medical problems, and vision can be affected by cataracts and common conditions such as diabetes and hypertension that affect the retina.
But don’t despair! In addition to managing any medical conditions with your doctors to minimize these impacts there are excellent exercises to build muscle and improve balance.
What types of exercise do you recommend to improve strength and balance?
Building muscle helps with both. So I go back to my original point – anything that gets you moving or keeps you moving is a good first step. Getting out for a regular walk will build muscle in your legs.
Weight bearing exercises are another great tool as we age and can take building muscle to the next level. This can be done using machines at the gym or small free weights at home. However, I like to keep it simple – using the weight of your body works wonderfully (and also builds core muscle and improves balance). You can build up your thigh muscles by holding a squatting position for 10 or 20 seconds. You can build calf muscles by doing toe raises. Use a wall or chair for balance if needed in the beginning. Repeat the exercises several times, hold for longer periods as you get stronger, and/or hold a half full milk jug in each hand to increase intensity.
As for balance, there are several things to consider. First is for the walker. Walking builds muscle and that prevents frailty. However, walking on level ground does not give us much balance training. So if you are already active and steady on your feet, then walking on uneven ground (the beach, rocky paths, or hiking trails) maintains and improves balance. Keep in mind it is important not to bite off more than you can chew here.
Alternatively, if that is too challenging, there are a whole host of simple balance exercises that you can do at home. An internet search on “balance exercises” or “balance exercises for seniors” will give you plenty of starting points. I’d suggest you find 4 or 5 exercises you like and build them into a 10-minute morning routine.
Finally, tai chi is another option and an outstanding way to improve balance. It evolved from martial arts and is a series of slow movements and postures. Taking classes is a great way to learn tai chi (several options in New Bedford) or you can search for tai chi on YouTube to find plenty of beginner instructional videos.
Tom Bozzo decided to do something new when he was thirty and went to medical school. After completing his residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, he relocated to the Southcoast where he has worked in primary care and addiction medicine since 2008. He especially enjoys team and competitive sports, but also likes being active with almost anything that gets him outdoors – biking, running, swimming, hiking, etc.