A friend who has reached the age of discounted senior bus tickets told a funny story about herself a few days ago. She was about two blocks away from her stop when she saw her bus coming. “I sprinted down the sidewalk,” she said. “Luckily I had my old lady rubber-soled shoes on because I felt as if I was breaking the four-minute mile. I got to the bus just as last person at the stop was boarding. I hauled myself up the steps breathing heavily and proudly waved my senior citizen pass at the driver. He looked at it, looked at me, looked at it again and then said, ‘You run pretty fast for an old lady.’”
We laughed but then started to talk seriously about the number of people we knew who were just barely able to hobble around. Age, orthopedic, or neurological problems and chronic illness were responsible for some of their physical impairments. But sometimes the inability to walk fast, climb stairs, lift only moderately heavy objects or even carry groceries was due to years of physical inactivity that left these individuals with reduced stamina, poor balance and fading muscle strength.
I recalled a client who came to see me for a weight-loss consultation who told me quite emphatically that she was simply too old to exercise. Her age? Forty-eight. I remember asking her how she planned to move about when she was forty years older if she stopped exercising now. “But I am almost menopausal.” she informed me. “Once I go through menopause, my body will be too old to exercise.” Fortunately she was receptive to my short talk on the importance of physical activity for cardiovascular, bone, and even mental health. Or maybe it was because I told her I could not help her lose weight unless she committed herself to a regular exercise regimen.
My words came back to me after a recent visit as a volunteer visitor to residents at a local old age home. I saw two women, one ninety and the other ninety-one. Both were extremely articulate. Their memories were intact and they related wonderful stories of their lives. Unfortunately, both were confined to wheelchairs and, because their upper body strength was so weak, they could not wheel the chairs themselves. Thus they spent most of the day in their rooms alone because the home had too few staff to move them except to the dining room for meals. Their families lived in other cities and their distress at the physical isolation due to their physical disability was great.
There is a common expression one hears around gyms: Use it or lose it. Although this expression usually applies to people who are training to acquire a competitive edge in a particular sport, develop well-defined muscles or the ability to engage in difficult yoga postures, it really applies to all of us. Aging will take its toll on our physical strength; this is why there are age categories in competitive events and why Olympic contenders are usually in their mid-twenties or younger. But we can slow the progression of age-related deterioration on our bodies by making sure that every day we engage in some physical activity, even if it is as little as lugging laundry up a couple of flights of stairs, carrying home groceries or walking a frisky puppy. To make the exercise even more protective against spending elder years in a wheelchair, try to do the following:
1. Increase your heart rate. Walk fast enough so that window-shopping is not an option but talking (and gossiping with a friend) still is.
2. Increase your muscle mass. Use lightweights, resistance cords, or gym equipment to strength muscles. Focus on your back muscles, as this will compensate for computer screen slouch and strengthen posture.
3. Work on your core; this is jargon for your mid–section. Your abdominal muscles and back muscles hold your body up and keep you balanced. Yoga and Pilates are very effective ways of strengthening is part of your body.
4. Practice balancing exercises such as standing on one leg, barefoot. Aging takes its toll on balance pretty early on. Just watch people wobbling on one foot in a beginning yoga class. When you can balance with your eyes open, try doing it with your eyes closed. Make sure you can grab onto something if you feel yourself tilting.
5. Find a recreational activity that forces you to move. If you have fun, you will be more likely to continue. Think dancing, bowling, bird watching, gardening, outdoor photography, walking tours, or walks for charity, and ping pong in addition to the obvious ones like hiking, biking, tennis, golf (without the cart) and jogging.
You may never need to run for a bus. But as long as running or any other type of exercise is part of your life, it is more likely to be a healthy one.