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Fitness Pays Big Dividends as People Age

Experts offer tips to those venturing out to exercise

FRIDAY, Jan. 16, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- It's one thing to have stomach muscles that resemble a six-pack when you're younger, but how about being able to carry a six-pack from the car to the house when you're 75?

The latter is the goal of exercise for older people, says an exercise professional who specializes in fitness for seniors.

"The image of fitness is a ripped bodybuilder, but when you're talking about older adults, they just want to be active and physically healthy," says Colin Milner, head of the International Council on Active Aging, a trade association of more than 3,500 organizations that specializes in senior fitness.

And regular exercise can keep them that way long into old age, he says.

"Many of the chronic health conditions we experience as we age come from disuse rather than aging, and exercise can retard the onset of many of those conditions," he says.

For example, consider this: Beginning at age 50, people begin to lose 12 percent of their muscle strength and 6 percent of their muscle mass every decade, says University of Maryland kinesiologist Ben Hurley.

But weight training can reverse these effects significantly -- two to three months of thrice-weekly weight training can increase muscle strength and mass by a third, making up for up to three decades of loss of muscle strength and muscle mass, he says.

"You can't completely do away with aging effects, but you can delay the onset of the loss of muscle strength and mass by exercise," he says.

Milner says it can be difficult for older people interested in exercise to find a way to start a program because most exercise facilities and programs are aimed at younger people.

"While many organizations are trying -- like YMCAs, hospital wellness centers and retirement communities with trained staffs -- the vast majority of health centers are still very youth-oriented," he says. "The fitness industry has portrayed exercise as an activity for younger people, and the message turns off the elderly."

With that in mind, Milner's organization recommends some guidelines to help seniors increase their physical activity.

  • Get a checkup to find out any physical modifications you have to incorporate into an exercise plan.
  • Find your baseline of activity by keeping a diary of your physical movement, tracking how much time you are sedentary -- watching television, sitting at a desk -- and active -- walking to your car, cooking a meal, doing chores around the house. At the end of the day, you'll have a good idea of how physically active you are.
  • Think about the most comfortable way for you to exercise. Do you like to be alone, or would you prefer to have an exercise buddy? Are you a morning or night person? Do you like indoor or outdoor activities? How much time can you spend in an activity and do you like longer, less frequent workouts or shorter, more frequent ones?
  • Check out any facility before you join. If you want to join a gym, visit it to see if it feels comfortable, if the staff is friendly or trained in exercise that accommodates your needs. Do the staff members have a college degree in health? Do they offer pre-exercise fitness assessments? Can they work with your physical limitations?
  • Make a date to exercise. Once you've figured out what you'd like to do, put it into a set time in your schedule. Whether it's joining a friend, or having a trainer at a gym, or just setting aside a certain time to do some activity, this will make it more likely that you'll do it.
  • Set specific short- and long-term goals. Decide how many times a week you will do your activity. Over the long term, think of something to work toward that will give you satisfaction and pleasure -- a new level of fitness, say, or gaining the ability to participate in a new activity.
  • Increase your activity in your daily life. Move around when you're talking on the phone, stand up and move during television commercials, do your own yard and house work, and walk as much as possible to local stores by parking your car in the back of the parking lot.
  • Don't quit.

"We're all looking for the fountain of youth," says Milner, "But the closest thing may be physical activity."

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers some tips for exercise for older people, as does the Mayo Clinic.

SOURCES: Colin Milner, chief executive officer, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, Canada; Ben Hurley, Ph.D., professor, department of kinesiology, University of Maryland, College Park
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