Being physically active is a crucial part of life—no matter how old you are.
by Claire Sykes
From roller skating to tennis, Elaine Dekovic of Ames, Iowa, has been active her whole life. Now at 80, she may ache and feel less surefooted—and long ago gave up sports—but that hasn’t stopped her from keeping fit. “It’s a no-brainer. When you get moving, your body just works better,” she says.
If you’re new to physical activity, it’s never too late to start. “First, see your doctor, to know what to do and avoid,” says Karl Knopf of the International Sports Science Association in Los Altos Hills, California, and author of the 50+ series of fitness books (Ulysses Press).
Regular physical activity can lower blood glucose, boost mood, improve cognition and sleep, increase energy and fight stress. Aerobic exercise increases heart rate, and blood and oxygen circulation; burns calories; and lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Weight-bearing exercise builds bone density; and strengthens muscles around the joints. Yoga and other stretches release tight muscles and expand range of motion.
Make yourself a priority. “It’s not about being selfish. It’s knowing you’ll feel better and be a better person,” says Dekovic. If you’re generally fit, staying that way takes two and a half hours per week; 10-minute chunks are fine. Ease any fear of injury by hiring a professional fitness trainer with accredited certification from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or the American Council on Exercise (ACE), and who specializes in older adults.
Start slowly and sensibly, “and focus more on your ability, not your age. But consider that your bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons are less resilient than they were 30 years ago,” reminds Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS, an international trainer of fitness trainers for older adults based in Boulder, Colorado. She is author of Navigating Fitness After 50 (Voice for Fitness).
“It’s more important to begin with strength training, to build up your large muscles and prepare you for aerobic exercise,” says Knopf, who suggests two to three times a week. Whether it’s free weights, resistance bands, weight machines or water walking, “use enough weight to feel fatigued after ten repetitions,” says Atkinson. If you have heart issues or painful arthritis, use less weight and do more reps.
Regarding cardiovascular exercise for older adults, the ACSM recommends 30-60 minutes five times a week. Also try boxing, swimming, low-trampoline jumps and hula-hoop spins.
“Every day, move your body for balance, flexibility and coordination,” says Knopf. “Stand hands-free on one leg beside the kitchen counter or walk a straight line like a tightrope.” Or take classes in tai chi, as Dekovic does, which also teaches her to “be more present, because it’s very slow and you have to be aware of how you’re moving.” Tai chi and yoga also aid flexibility and coordination.
Drink plenty of water. “If I don’t, I feel more pain,” says Dekovic. Atkinson warns, “When you’re dehydrated, you risk falling because your coordination could be off. The same thing can happen if you don’t get adequate sleep—80% of it at night—which can also affect mental judgment.” Finally, eat a wholesome diet, including salmon, walnuts and other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Along with watching her weight, Dekovic spends time with family and friends to “lift my spirits and give me energy.”
“I feel blessed that I’ve reached this point in my life,” says Dekovic. “It’s a great time to be 80.”