When you were a kid, you ran, jumped and played all day, and thought nothing of it. When you hit 50, you realized the value of all that physical strength and energy. This is the point where you face a choice: lament the loss of your youth, or learn to appreciate and value what remains. If dancing the jitterbug has been permanently crossed off your “to do” list, will you weep bitter tears or revel in the memories and tap your toes? The choice is yours.
I’m not suggesting you deny reality: although rare seniors run four miles a day, many others have difficulty just walking down the driveway. Peak athletic performance usually occurs in the 20’s, and most people have significant decreases in physical capabilities beginning in their 50’s. But, normal, age-related declines should not prevent a person from being physically active. There is no question that exercise improves older bodies and minds, and that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of chronic illness.
Everyone can benefit from physical activity. Walking, tai chi, yoga, and balance and stretching exercises are all good ways for seniors to strengthen muscles and improve physical conditioning. Some elders think their muscles are too weak, their bones too “creaky”, for exercise – I asked Edward L. Schneider, M.D., Emeritus Dean of Gerontology at USC, what he would recommend to them. His answer was, “Most seniors notice greater flexibility after just a few sessions of tai chi or yoga.” In other words, you might find that your body is capable of more than you know.
Walking for as little as 15 minutes a day can improve your health and set you on a path to greater fitness. Why not invite a friend or relative to start a walking routine with you? All you need is a good pair of shoes and the motivation to set out. As you gain endurance and walk farther, you will not only feel better but will increase your health benefits. If you have setbacks from holidays, travel or illness, you can always go back to 15-minute sessions and build your walking time again.
Any amount of exercise is better than none. Even seniors who have been sedentary for years or who suffer from chronic, limiting health conditions can start small and gradually improve physical fitness. If medical conditions or pain are impediments to activity, talk with a physician or physical therapist about exercises tailored to your needs.
People age in different ways, and most of us won’t be running marathons at 70. But ask yourself this: are you as active as you could be? Are you preserving your physical abilities or letting them wither? To feel your body move and breathe is one of the great joys of life. It’s okay to slow down, but it’s a shame to stop.