More on Exercise and Aging

This week I read an article asking the question “Do We Expect Too Much of Our Bodies as We Age?”  You might read that title and think it gives you a license to get complacent.  “Yup”, you might think, “I’m too old to do ____________ (fill in the blank) anymore.”   But the article presents a different picture.  It is for all of us over-achievers who keep comparing ourselves to each other and to our former selves.  The article discusses our hope that we can reverse (cure?) the aging process by exercising.  This naturally creates frustration with the limitations we continue to encounter as we age.

The fact is, we are all aging.  Every day we get a little older, like or not.  Despite the fantasies of science fiction writers, time only moves in one direction as far as we know.  And with that direction, change happens.  None of us like change. Yet change is inevitable and constant.  One of the few constants in our world – like death and taxes.

So we know we’re getting older and we know we can’t do some of the things we used to do.  Or at least we can’t do them in the same way we used to do them.  So what are our choices?  We can sit and lament the things we wish could still do and beat ourselves up for our own incompetence.  Or we can celebrate the things we can still do.  Some of that inevitable change can be positive.  No matter how much you’ve lost, you can still make gains.  Maybe you won’t get back to where you were when you were 20, but you can improve.  All it takes is a little effort.  The more consistent that effort is, the more gains you will make.

According to the National Institute on Aging, it’s never too late to start and the benefits are numerous and ongoing.  Here are a few:

Being physically active can help you continue to do the things you enjoy and stay independent as you age.  . . In addition, regular exercise and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing some diseases and disabilities that develop as people grow older.  In some cases, exercise is an effective treatment for many chronic conditions. For example, studies show that people with arthritis, heart disease, or diabetes benefit from regular exercise.  Exercise also helps people with high blood pressure, balance problems, or difficulty walking.

In fact, “in most cases, you have more to lose by not doing anything.” (from “Exercise & Physical Activity – Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging”).  Consistency is the key, though.  Start slow and give yourself time to adapt.  Your muscles make gains from the rest between exercise sessions.  That’s why we sometimes get sore when challenging our muscles.  But that’s how your body gets stronger – by recognizing the need to address the new challenge.  To sustain those gains we need to create that muscle memory.  The best way to do that is like any other memory we want to promote – that is, by providing reminders.  In this case, reminders come in the form of continuing to engage in these activities.  That’s why we call it practice.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.  But getting better doesn’t mean becoming 20 again.  Start where you’re at and move from there.  Fighting with reality will only make you miserable.

Returning to the National Institute on Aging, it’s never too late to start.  Even if you have difficulty, you can still benefit from exercise and movement.  The four types of physical activities recommended include those emphasizing endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.  The good news is both Pilates and yoga incorporate all of the above.  Both disciplines can also be easily modified to accomodate physical limitations.  Also, both will help with whatever other physical activities your life requires – like climbing stairs or gardening or putting the groceries away.

So don’t wait . . . just get moving!  You can do it!  But be kind to yourself.  Compassion begins with yourself.  Idea Fitness Journal recently printed an article on “How to Help Middle-Aged Women Improve Body Satisfaction“.  One reader (Karen Geninatti of Geninatti Gym and Fitness in Carlinville, Illinois) responded to this article by describing her “no negative comments about yourself” rule in her classes.  She also tells participants “never to say anything to themselves or about themselves that they would not say to their son or daughter”.  Amen to that.

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