Growing Older, Staying Strong.
Diet and Exercise Key
The two most important keys to successful aging are diet and exercise, says John Faulkner, PhD, senior researcher at the Muscle Mechanics Laboratory in the Institute of Gerontology and professor of physiology and biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
"The most critical thing as we age is maintaining the ability to move, and that means having a reasonable body weight," Faulkner says. "Your metabolism continues to slow down steadily every decade. We need less food today than we did 10 years ago."
In addition to eating a well-balanced diet, it's essential to continue to exercise throughout life. "Find something that appeals to you, because few people will continue to engage in exercise unless they enjoy it," Faulkner says. "It's critical to understand that you will lose muscle mass as you grow older. At age 80 people generally have about 50% to 60% of the muscle mass they had when they were 30. If you work out regularly with modest weights you can prevent some of that loss. Instead of losing 40% of your muscle mass, you might only lose 30%." Gruman adds that working out with small weights not only builds muscle mass but also helps fight osteoporosis and strengthens muscles that preserve balance.
Mosqueda, too, emphasizes the importance of continuing exercise.
"Regular exercise maintains flexibility and functioning, and helps prevent falls," she says. "It doesn't matter what age you are. At any age you can exercise and increase your physical and social well-being." She recommends a program that includes both aerobic exercise to increase blood flow and a gentler exercise like tai chi to increase flexibility and balance.
Adapt Gracefully to Change
"We find that people who age successfully and have a good quality of life adapt well to changes," Mosqueda says. "If they can't square dance any more, they try ballroom dancing. If they can't run marathons, they shift to shorter runs. Instead of feeling 'there's nothing else I can do,' they look for solutions."
When Appel traveled to Eastern Europe, she couldn't always keep up with her group. "Just be sure to keep me in sight, and I'll arrive a few minutes after you," she told them. When she came to a staircase with no handrails and needed help, she asked for it. "It's important not to feel that 'this is only happening to me,'" she says. "Keep in mind that people of all ages have to deal with changes in their abilities. Find a balance. Work to improve what you can do, and at the same time acknowledge your limits."