Senior Exercise (cont.)

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How do I get started?

There's no need to try and make up for years of inactivity overnight. In fact, you could get injured or quickly become burned out by doing that. Instead, start slowly and build up gradually. If that means starting with just five minutes of walking, then that's what you ought to do. In fact, one of my favorite plans to recommend for getting started is the five-minutes-out, five-minutes-back plan. Just like it sounds, you walk out for five minutes, turn around, and walk back. That's it...10 minutes of walking, and off you go about your day. If you feel ambitious, you can do seven and a half or even 10 minutes out and back, and add some stretching when you finish if you like. One of the best ways to get motivated and stay that way is to set goals. I suggest that you set a weekly exercise plan, starting today for the week coming up. Write down what day(s) of the week, what time of day, minutes of activity, and the activity that you'll do. Be as specific and realistic as possible, and remember that it's not how much you do when you get started but that you simply get started. Keep setting and reviewing your goals weekly for at least three months. That way you'll be sure to stay on track and build exercise into your life as a habit.

What are some exercise options?

For aerobic exercise: Walking, dancing (when's the last time you took a ballroom-dancing class?), biking, and swimming are all good options. You can also try exercise videos. Collage Video is a good resource. They have lots of videos for individuals of all ages (search their site for "seniors"). Also check out your local senior center, rec center, Y, or local fitness center for classes that are appropriate for you. Many centers offer exercise classes for seniors. They're out there if you look.

For resistance exercise: You don't need to pump iron in a gym to do resistance exercise. Of course, if you want to go to the gym, I wouldn't discourage you. But if you prefer to do it at home, you can. I recommend exercise tubing if you're looking for a simple but effective way to do resistance exercise at home. Exercise tubing is inexpensive and versatile (you can do lots of very different exercises with them) and a great way to get started with resistance exercise. You can start with a set of four for about $20. They come in colors to denote the tension. If you order them, make sure to order the strap that allows you to attach the tube to a door, and if you want to work your legs, ask for leg straps. Here are some vendors that sell them:

If you don't get around very well and prefer to exercise sitting down, try exercise videos in a chair. Collage Video and Armchair Fitness are two good resources.

For flexibility exercise: There are lots of good resources for stretching exercises.

  • Search by keyword "stretch" or "flexibility" at Collage Video, and you'll come up with a multitude of possibilities.
  • I recommend yoga if you want to learn how to stretch. Check for yoga centers in your neighborhood or at your local rec center or senior center.
  • Check your local rec center or Y for stretching classes. Stretching classes are a great way to relax, improve your flexibility, and maybe even meet some new people!
  • Here are some excellent books:
    • Stretching for Fitness, Health & Performance: The Complete Handbook for All Ages & Fitness Levels by Dr. Christopher Oswald and Dr. Stanley Bacso
    • Stretching for Flexibility and Health by Francine St. George
    • Stretch and Strengthen by Judith B. Alter
    • Stretching by Bob Anderson (This book is a classic, and I recommend it for beginners.)

For balance exercise: Do some or all of these exercises every day for best results. Have someone standing nearby to support you if you are concerned you might fall, especially for the ones where I suggest closing your eyes, since this is the most challenging. Speak with your doctor before doing these exercises if you have a balance disturbance or are concerned about whether it is safe for you to do them.

  1. Stork: One of the simplest exercises to improve balance is to stand on one leg, keep your arms at your side with your shoulders relaxed, and try to balance for 30 seconds. Repeat one to two times with each leg every day. Over the next few weeks, try to work up to two minutes. One hint: Try not to "grab" the floor with the toes of the foot that's on the ground. Relax your muscles, and you'll have more success.To make the stork more challenging, try swinging your arms like you're running. That will throw you slightly off balance and you will need to make corrections to maintain your balance. This can also help strengthen your core and abdomninal muscle groups that are involved in balancing. You can hold bottles of water in each hand for even more of a challenge.Another way to make the stork more challenging is to fold a bath towel over several times so it's five to six layers thick. Now place it on the floor and stand in the center of it. It will be unstable because it's soft, but that's the idea because you want to really work hard to improve your balance and strengthen your muscles. And for the most challenge of all, try doing the stork with your eyes closed.
  2. Nose toucher: Stand with your right leg approximately 24 inches in front of your left, bend your knees slightly, and try to touch your nose with your finger. The more in line your feet with each other the more challenging this will be. Once you can do it well with either leg in front of the other, try this with your eyes closed.
  3. Heel raises: Hold on to a sturdy chair for balance and rise up on to your tippy toes. Repeat 10-15 times. You can progress to touching the chair with one finger for balance, then eventually no holding at all, and finally with your eyes closed.
  4. Marching: Hold on to a sturdy chair for balance, and lift your right knee up toward your chest, then lower to starting positions. The left knee can be bent slightly. Repeat 10-15 times with the right leg, and then do the left leg. You can progress to touching the chair with one finger for balance, then eventually without holding onto any support at all, and finally with your eyes closed. You can also try alternating the marching between left and right leg instead of one set with one leg.
  5. Side leg raise: Hold on to a sturdy chair for balance and lift your right leg out to the side. The left knee can be bent slightly. Repeat 10-15 times with right leg then do the left leg. You can progress to touching the chair with one finger for balance, then eventually no holding at all, and finally with your eyes closed.
  6. Walk a straight line: Look for a straight line on the floor (like floor tiles) and try to walk along it. The key here is to land with one foot directly in front of the other and also land on your heel first. Try with arms extended out and then relaxed at your sides. To progress, try walking forward to one end and then backwards to the other. Then try walking forward only with your eyes closed. Walk back and forth 10 times.
  7. Step-ups: Stand in front of a staircase and step up with your right foot, then up with your left, then back down with your right, then back down with your left. Repeat 10 times. If you need a little support, hold on gently to the railing, or better yet, just touch the wall with your finger tip and you'll be amazed at how much balance that gives you.
  8. Sit-stands: Sit on the edge of a sturdy chair and try to stand up without swinging your arms forward, and then sit back down very slowly. Repeat 10 times. If you need help, go ahead and let your arms reach forward for balance, but then over time, try to do them without the assistance of your arms.

Go for it!

I don't think anyone can argue with the ideas that exercise is good for you, no matter what your age, and importantly, it's never too late to start. I started this article with a quote and would like to finish with one as well. It's by Dr. George Sheehan. Dr. Sheehan was a cardiologist, who, in the 1970s, at the age of 45, decided to turn around his health and his life. He caught the running bug and started to train, compete, and run marathons. He quickly became an expert on the subject and started writing weekly fitness columns in local newspapers. He was medical editor for Runner's World magazine for 25 years; he counseled his patients on the virtues of exercise; and he lectured internationally. He wrote eight books about running, fitness, and health, and he played a key role in promoting the running boom of the 1970s. He was philosophical about winning, losing, suffering, meditation, training, and working through pain, and he would quote the likes of William James for inspiration. In 1986, Dr. Sheehan was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to his bones by the time he was diagnosed. He hung on courageously for seven more years, running and competing up until the end of his life. He died in 1993, just four days short of his 75th birthday. Dr. Sheehan had the following to say about his experience with running and with life. "No matter how old I get, the race remains one of life's most rewarding experiences. My times become slower and slower, but the experience of the race is unchanged: each race a drama, each race a challenge, each race stretching me in one way or another, and each race telling me more about myself and others."

Of course, you don't need to be a marathoner like Dr. Sheehan to experience the joy and satisfaction of exercise. Just getting started will do it. Go ahead and give it your best shot. You deserve it.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/24/2014

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