Here’s a quiz for you: name the one activity that everyone agrees is vitally important for a longer, healthier life – yet only one senior in eight actually does it. The answer is regular exercise, and we confess to being numbered among those with good intentions but a sad lack of follow-through. “Regular exercise” remains perpetually on the “one of these days” list!
But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially for those who are fully or partially retired. For encouragement, we offer this recent article from NextAvenue in which freelance writer Patricia Garrison offers a fresh (and guilt-free) perspective on retirees and exercise. Her simple prescription is to start gradually with small and manageable goals, and to focus on activities you actually enjoy. Makes sense to us, so let’s see what Garrison has to say.
A Long Road from Sofa to Gym
Garrison begins with a familiar refrain: “You know you need to do it, and you promise to start tomorrow. But the road from the sofa to the gym, pool or yoga studio can prove insurmountable when the day dawns. You’re just not into exercise. And you’re not alone.”
The latest numbers suggest that only one in five adults exercises regularly, and that number drops to 12 percent for people over age 65. The main cited reason? Lack of time, especially among working adults. But even having more free time and a lack of structure—like you might find in retirement—can make committing to exercise a challenge.
Retirement is When Schedules Become Freer
“People’s schedules up until retirement have a lot of activity built in,” says Dr. Katie Hill, chief medical officer of Nudj Health. “You’re walking to and from the car, walking around the office, getting out from your desk, going to meetings, going to lunch. Our external schedules help give us structure. A lot of that goes away in retirement. Physical activity levels are no longer baked into your routine and a lot of sitting happens.”
For older adults there are other powerful forces at play, such as the fear of falling or injury, belief that exercise is only for young people—and that it’s too late to start—or the allure of sitting on the couch watching your favorite shows and eating your favorite snacks most of the day. After all, you’ve earned it, right?
“Those who are lifelong exercisers are likely to continue into later life,” says Margie Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University. “In contrast, to start exercising later in life requires one to decide how, what, and when to do it. It takes a commitment to start a new physical activity pattern after a long-term sedentary lifestyle.”
Too Much Leisure Equals Too Many Health Issues
“With the need to exercise making headlines and public health experts touting the importance of movement, knowledge of the benefits of exercise is hard to miss,” Garrison writes. “For example, staying active can lower the risks of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, depression, anxiety, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.”
She adds, “Moving regularly can also help maintain a healthy weight, increase mobility and strength, and reduce — rather than exacerbate — the risk of falling.”
But leading a sedentary life does exactly the opposite, increasing the risk of life-threatening diseases, cancers, diabetes, as well as anxiety and depression. It also just generally makes daily activities more challenging.
“Yet, despite the evidence, many older adults blame their accumulating health issues on aging, believing they’re too old to start an exercise program,” Garrison writes. “Their pain, discomfort and stiffness will only increase if they do.”
Lack of Exercise Triggers Premature Aging
“The myth that our bodies degrade due to aging causes some older adults to stop exercising, though many of the problems originally associated with aging are the direct cause of physical inactivity,” says Amanda Sterczyk, an Ottawa-based physical therapist and fitness advocate for older adults.
“Physical inactivity,” she continues, “is prematurely aging their bodies. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” And she adds that it can also make it harder to do the things older adults enjoy, such as playing with grandkids or traveling without limitations.
But, Garrison explains, “shifting to a more active life from one largely sedentary doesn’t mean gritting your teeth and bolting from chair to treadmill. Instead, experts advise going slowly and emphasizing pleasure.”
The Pleasure Principle: Find Activities You Like
Here on the Blog we talk a lot about the guidelines for daily activity and nutrition and such. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend “150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week and two days of strength training.” And frankly, that can be a bit daunting.
But in this rare case, experts that Garrison talked to for her article offer this refreshing advice: ignore the guidelines. At least, ignore them when you’re first starting out.
“If you’re going to start a habit, you’ve got to start small,” says Lana Heimann, a physical therapist and movement specialist in Princeton, New Jersey. “Find something that’s more enjoyable than torturous. People will start with the bike or the treadmill; if they don’t like it, they’ll stop. If you’re not enjoying it or you’re miserable, you’re not going to continue.”
Hill, in particular, encourages older adults to simply add movement to your normal activities, especially when it leads you to get out of the house more. This increases the amount of time that you’re not sitting, as well as your number of daily steps.
“In addition to parking further away from the grocery store or walking to the mailbox, think of activities that bring a smile to your face,” she says, “such as going to a local park to watch the dogs or moving to music. Consider and seek out ways to move. Tap into your social network to create opportunities for moving that involve seeing people in person. Be thoughtful about it.”
Another strategy is called “temptation bundling”, or combining exercise with something you like. For example, walking while listening to music or a favorite podcast, riding a stationary exercise bike while watching a favorite television show, or walking with a friend.
“Or you can reward yourself after exercising with something you enjoy, such as reading a book or getting an iced coffee,” Garrison writes.
Some Tips to Get You Started
“All experts advised speaking with a health professional if you have health issues or concerns, as your doctor might recommend a specific approach,” Garrison notes. “However, if you’re otherwise healthy, here are some tips when starting…”
(We’ve included Garrison’s excellent tips verbatim from the article.)
- Begin gradually. Pay attention to your body to avoid muscle strain. Then, as you continue to move, you can increase duration and intensity.
- Consider walking first. It’s accessible, free, doesn’t require unique clothing or equipment, and you can change the pace, i.e., a block of brisk walking followed by a slower pace. Start with about 10 minutes a day the first week and add five minutes weekly, aiming for a minimum of 30.
- Incorporate a water activity. Even if you’re not a swimmer, you can get in a pool in the shallow end. Water relieves pressure on joints, and resistance against the water is tougher on muscles and strengthens them.
- Try stretching and mobility movements. A sedentary life creates muscle imbalance. Some get tight, and others get long and loose, further exacerbating the risk of injury. Check online for simple stretching options and go slowly and carefully to help muscles rebalance.
- Don’t be alarmed if you experience some muscle soreness. It’s to be expected if you’ve been sedentary for a long time. But if you experience sharp pains, particularly in the joints, stop doing the activity and follow up with your health care professional.
- Consider hiring a personal trainer or movement specialist who works with older bodies. If cost is an issue, seek out tutorials online.
“It takes a few weeks to develop a habit before it becomes an automatic part of one’s everyday life,” says Lachman. “When something is enjoyable, you will be more likely to keep doing it for the intrinsic pleasure and feeling good after doing it. When you start to miss it you know it is an integral part of your routine.”
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Your retirement can be the exciting and fulfilling life you’ve always wanted it to be. Start by reading and sharing Rajiv’s important new book. And remember, Age On, everyone!
(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)