May 29, 2000 -- You don't have to be a Senior Olympian or a genetically souped-up centenarian to reap the rewards of exercise and good nutrition. It is never too soon -- or too late -- to start getting in shape.
Karl Knopf, EdD, executive director of the Fitness Educators of Older Adults Association, says older people need to find "sensible mild to moderate exercise" that they enjoy. He also says that stretching is important to successful aging. Yoga may be helpful, but people with aches and pains should avoid some of the more difficult poses. If an exercise or stretch causes pain, don't continue. And checking in with your physician before embarking on a workout program is crucial.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
In addition to aerobic exercise such as walking or swimming, Knopf recommends some degree of strength training, whether at a fully equipped gym or at home with light weights and rubber exercise bands. It's important that beginners get instruction from someone who understands the needs of older bodies; they should at least invest in a good exercise book.
If your body is in pain two hours after exercising, you should back off a bit, Knopf says. He adds that older adults probably shouldn't try to increase their rate of exercise by more than 10% a week, but even small increases add up faster than people often expect.
Thomas Perls, MD, a Harvard University gerontologist and researcher, agrees that weight training is increasingly important as we age. After the age of 30 we tend to lose one-third of a pound of muscle per year, and our bones become weaker as well if they aren't subjected to weight-bearing exercise. Perls cites research demonstrating that weight training can triple overall muscle mass in elderly people and markedly improve all measures of health.
As optimistic as Perls is about the average person's ability to improve well-being and longevity, he urges skepticism toward untested easy fixes. The "anti-aging" industry touts a number of potentially dangerous fountain-of-youth items (such as human growth hormone), which may tempt consumers who are more willing to spend money than time and effort on becoming healthier. Better to just get up and use those muscles. And for smokers, quitting is the single best thing they can do for their health at any age.
Writer David R. Dudley is based in Berkeley, Calif. His stories have appeared in The New Physician and The San Jose Mercury News.