At the age of 50, Vivian Stancil was suffering from a number of health conditions made worse by being overweight. As other health issues began to affect her well-being, she decided she had to do something. So she took up swimming — really took it up. And everything changed. “It was hard when I started, but my life depended on it,” she says. Now in her seventies, Stancil has maintained her energy and optimism, and still swims up to 90 minutes a day at a local pool near her home in Riverside, CA.
Kick-starting a new fitness routine can be intimidating, especially if you’ve been out of shape for a while and worry that it’s just too late. “Fear often keeps seniors from working out,” Stancil agrees. “And I understand. I used to think I was too old for this.” But studies show that starting a fitness routine later in life — even after 70 — can improve your cardiovascular health, brain function and overall quality of life.
Ricky Moore, an Aetna health coach and personal trainer, says success depends on thoughtful planning. When crafting a custom fitness program for clients, Moore asks questions about their routine, favorite activities, even their hopes and dreams. If you’ve resolved to get fit, read on for the five questions that can help you develop new healthy habits.
“Older adults come in all sizes and conditions,” says Moore. “Some are in better shape than twenty-somethings that come into my office. Others are managing health conditions and medications.” If you’re a beginner, ask your doctor how much activity is appropriate for you. The biggest mistake rookies make is pushing too hard. While you may enjoy the rush of a sprint around the block, going all out puts you at risk of injury and is hard to maintain over time.
A good rule of thumb: If you’re too out of breath to carry on a conversation during your workout, you may be overdoing it. As the saying goes, walk before you run. Watch how Larry Beach walked off extra weight one step at a time.
Moore stresses that goals should be reasonable. Anyone who expects to get off the couch and run a 5K in a matter of weeks may be discouraged. “Being realistic is better than shooting for the stars,” he says. Also consider any general goals that will call on your strength and stamina: keeping up with the grandkids, visiting a national park or taming an overgrown garden. A doctor or health coach can recommend specific exercises that support your hobbies and bucket list dreams. Your health insurance company may also provide free wellness consultations by phone. Aetna members, for example, can speak to a health coach who’s trained to help you set and achieve meaningful goals.
Getting fit doesn’t have to involve “exercise” in the traditional sense. “I start with whatever a person already likes to do, and then just increase the frequency,” Moore says. “Stepping up a favorite pastime, like gardening, to three to five times a week can improve health more than lugging yourself to the gym.” And you’re more likely to succeed if you’re having fun along the way.
“I try to encourage working out with others if possible,” says Moore. “When you get to know other people working toward the same goals, you hold each other accountable.” Studies show that being around people with healthy habits tends to rub off, and that social support itself has physical and cognitive health benefits. Whether you join a tennis league or sign up for a dance class, committing to a group activity is a great way to ensure you keep up the habit. Read more about social fitness.
Yes! Mobile fitness apps allow you to track your workouts and diet. They can also connect you with friends for gentle encouragement or a little healthy competition. Moore says that pedometers and other wearables can also push you with appropriate fitness and diet challenges.
Not so much. Before there were apps, athletes kept exercise diaries. This low-tech option has its advantages: In addition to logging your workouts, you can jot down how you felt during and after, and include details like the weather, what you ate and how much water you drank. After a few weeks, go back and review your entries to discover which factors contributed to your best workouts. Exercise journals can be found in bookstores, running shops and online — though a plain notebook will also do the trick.
“Consistency is the hard part for most people,” says Moore. Setting aside a regular time to exercise is more important than the length of your session. If you’re having trouble finding a whole hour, that’s OK, Moore adds: “Studies show that if you work out just ten minutes at a time, three times a day, you get the benefits.” Telling yourself “it’s only ten minutes” also lowers the psychological hurdle. Over time, if you’re enjoying yourself and seeing results, it’s likely that 10 minutes will turn into 15, then 20, and so on. And remember, a little exercise is always better than none at all.
It’s never too late to start a fitness routine — and love it. “I’m old — so what!” Stancil declares. “I don’t let people tell me what I can and cannot do. If you are breathing and you can move, then you can exercise.”
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Cordell Eddings is a DC-based writer who plays basketball, bikes and is an active CrossFitter. But his most strenuous activity is playing with his three kids.
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