Found: The Fountain of Youth. It’s at your local gym, or the bike path in the park, or the sidewalk in your neighborhood. Basically, it’s anywhere but your couch.
“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to be old,” says Stella Volpe, PhD, chair of the department of nutrition science at Drexel University. “Physical activity is what makes the difference.”
It’s a huge difference, too. You’ll stave off diabetes and heart disease. And avoid bedroom problems by boosting blood flow and cutting stress -- both play a role in erectile dysfunction. Plus it helps you feel good about yourself, says Bill Kohl, PhD, professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
Best of all, exercise can literally prevent your DNA from being damaged as you get older. The trick is to work with your body and mind to get all the benefits of an active life.
Do It for Love of the Game
What’s the key to getting -- and staying -- active? Doing something you love. “Research is clear: Use it or lose it,” Olson says. “So make an effort to find an activity you love. You’ll be far more likely to stick with it.”
Retired NBA player Trent Tucker is a perfect example. He left basketball after 11 years but he’s still active. He just traded one court for another: “I don’t play basketball anymore, but I was lucky enough once I left the game to find tennis,” he says.
Even though he’s been at it 7 or 8 years, his head is still in the game. “I like the sport a lot. I’m still learning how to play. I’m still learning things about the game, so I’m enthused about tennis. Anytime you can still learn and pick up things that can help you become a better player, that’s where the motivation comes from.”
It’s OK to Start Small
You don’t have to hit the gym like a pro -- or even a retired pro. At least not at first. In the beginning, all movement counts, says Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama.
And if you haven’t been doing a lot, then 5 to 15 minutes a few times a week is a good start. “A small ‘dose’ is beneficial because you won’t dread it,” Olson says. “Plus, you won’t get too sore or injured right out of the gate.”
But you do have to move. Being active doesn’t mean standing up if you’ve been sitting at your desk for an hour, Kohl says. “It means going for a couple-minute walk. You’ll notice you feel better afterward.”
Then Step It Up
The more often you move, the better. And you’re going to have to do more of it as you go along. Take it up a notch once you’ve been at it for a month or so. Bike for 20 minutes instead of 15. You might feel tired at first, but after a few weeks, you’ll have energy to burn.
The goal is to get your heart rate up and keep it there. You can walk, swim, use the elliptical machine, or ride a bike. They're all great cardio options.
If they’re hard-core enough, chores like cleaning and yard work can be just as good for you as jogging. You can burn about 300 calories an hour from mowing and half that from housework.
But you shouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with your neighbor across the fence while you’re mowing or raking leaves. If you can, you’re not working hard enough, and you won’t get all those disease-busting benefits.
Cardio is only half the game. Strength training is just as important. It helps you hang on to your muscles as you age. In turn, good muscles keep your metabolism going, and that fights weight gain. It also builds bone mass, which can help you avoid breaks later on, Olson says.
If you love to pump iron, great. If not? “Exercises that use your body weight, like pushups and squats, count, too,” Olson says. Try to work all your major muscle groups two to three times a week.
How Much Is Enough?
Tucker says he hits the tennis courts three to four times a week. If you’ve ever watched tennis on TV, you know a match can sometimes take hours. You don't need to be out there that long.
You’ve probably heard -- often -- that you need at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week. Looking for extra motivation to get out there? How about this: Researchers say that’s the sweet spot, timewise, for adding extra years to your life with exercise.
Just remember that you’re not 18 anymore, or even 35. You can’t make up for a week behind a desk with an intense sweat session on Saturday. And don’t try pick up where you left off 10 years ago, either. “Build up over time and give your body a chance to adjust,” Kohl says.
Once you’re in shape, there’s no reason you can’t exercise as long as you used to, he says. You should be able to do as many reps as you did in your 20s while strength training, too.
Mark May, an NFL veteran and longtime host of ESPN’s College Football Final, has a cardio-strength training combo that helps him stay fit now that he’s out of the league. He hits the elliptical for an hour, even if he has to get up at 3 or 4 a.m. to do it. He lifts heavy weights 3 days a week and lighter ones another 3 days. And he bookends his workout with 250 sit-ups. “Even when I travel, I work out every day,” he says. “I look for hotels that have the kind of equipment I need.”
You Can Do More Than You Think
Men in their 60s, 70s, and beyond snowboard, surf, compete in triathlons, and much more. Every two years, amateur athletes ranging in age from 50 to over 100 gather for the National Senior Games. They take part in everything their younger Olympian colleagues do, from archery to a triathlon that includes a 400 meter swim, 20k bike race and 5k road race.
In 2014, Neil Gussman completed his first Ironman triathlon at age 61. This year he’s hoping for a repeat (or better) of his bronze-medal-winning cycling performance in the 2005 Senior Games.
What’s his training regimen?
- A 25- to 35-mile bike ride at least 5 days a week
- A 1,000- to 2000-yard swim 3 days a week
- Running about 10 miles a week (for now -- he’s just started back)
And in addition to his training regimen, he’s still active with the Army National Guard. What motivates him? “Obsession. I love to ride and work out,” he says.
Does he ever feel he’s too old for it? “Not with cycling. I love it. Running, yes. I get sore. I quit, then I miss it.”
What’s his take on staying active: “When someone over 50 competes, it is their life on display. Fitness after 50 is not casual.”